On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FG-09-120-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 24, 2010
Before Judges Graves, Sabatino, and J. N. Harris.
This Title 30*fn1 guardianship action involves Judith and her two young children, Susan and Joanne.*fn2 Over the past several years, Judith has been in and out of several inpatient programs, was enrolled in classes to improve her parenting skills, and participated in alcohol and drug rehabilitation therapy. Limited progress has been made towards rehabilitation, but the major dependency and depression issues that plagued defendant for a majority of her life still appear to trouble her.
Despite the intensive efforts of the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division) to reunite Judith with her children, she continued to have substantial difficulty parenting and failed to make any meaningful progress towards reunification, as her extensive history of substance abuse, depression, and other cognitive defects effectively acted as a barrier towards that ultimate goal.
A multi-day trial was conducted, at which Judith testified. Additionally, DYFS representatives and expert testimony were presented regarding defendant's ability to parent. After a review of the evidence, the Family Part terminated Judith's parental rights as to Susan and Joanne. Defendant now appeals that decision, arguing, among other things, that her parental rights were erroneously terminated because DYFS failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the children were better off without their biological mother, pursuant to the requirements of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1. We disagree and affirm.
Defendant and her children first became involved with DYFS on December 29, 2004, when a family doctor called the Division with concerns about Judith's ability to parent the minor children, Susan and Joanne. When the Division investigated and found that defendant had a significant history of drug use, together with issues linked to bipolar disorder and depression, it began providing services to the family. These services included substance abuse counseling, outpatient substance abuse treatment, and supervised visitation.
Despite its ongoing provision of opportunities to assist defendant and her children, the Division received additional referrals regarding the family. On May 20, 2005, after defendant left the children at home unsupervised, DYFS substantiated its first claim of neglect against Judith. There was a second substantiation of neglect shortly thereafter, when defendant left the children alone with their severely intoxicated maternal grandmother, which impelled DYFS to remove the children from defendant's care on an emergency basis.
On February 10, 2006, after being moved between various foster homes, the children were placed with the Garcia-Lugo family,*fn3 with whom they have primarily resided throughout the guardianship trial and current appeal. This family has expressed on numerous occasions that they are committed to adopting both Susan and Joanne, should defendant's parental rights be permanently terminated at the conclusion of this case.
During its involvement with Judith and her daughters, the Division explored numerous other placement options by considering several of defendant's relatives. All were ruled out as potential placements due to poor accommodations in the home, lack of interest, or other personal family issues that prevented the individuals from adequately caring for the children at that time.
In its continued effort to provide services to Judith in order to help her effectively parent and ultimately regain custody, DYFS arranged for her to be enrolled in the MatriArk inpatient residential program at the Seabrook House, which treats drug dependent women along with their children. From the time she entered the facility on March 22, 2006, the defendant received more of the Division's services, including drug rehabilitation, individual and group therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings, educational and life skills classes, along with parenting sessions and psychological therapy.
During her first few months at Seabrook House, Judith was separately evaluated by two psychiatrists: Dr. David M. Friel, M.D., and Dr. James J. Feretti, M.D.; some time later, she was also seen by Dr. Thomas Galski, Ph.D., all in order to assess defendant's "levels of intellectual and personality functioning and to examine the presence of learning and memory problems affecting her ability to participate fully in her treatment program." The three mental health evaluations all reached a similar conclusion: Judith had a substance abuse disorder, along with depression, and that she would need continued monitoring by mental health professionals.
While at Seabrook House, Judith was permitted to have supervised visitation with the children between May 2006 and November 2006, which increased from two-hour visits each week to overnight weekend visitation. Because these visits appeared to be going well according to the Seabrook House staff, in November 2006, it was recommended that the Division permit defendant to live with the children at ...