On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Mercer County, FG-11-76-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 9, 2010
Before Judges Grall, Messano and LeWinn.
Defendant is the mother of eight children. She appeals from the December 24, 2008 judgment of the Family Part terminating her parental rights to her four youngest children: R.S.M., born in June 2002; S.R.M., born in September 2003; S.O.M., born in December 2004; and S.E.M., born in June 2007; the judgment further awarded guardianship of these four children to the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS).*fn1
The four older children are not the subject of these proceedings.
Sometime in August 2005, DYFS investigated a report that all of defendant's children were neglected. Two DYFS workers responded and learned that six of the children were not enrolled in school, that defendant was on medication for depression, and that she had a history of domestic violence with A.M., her paramour and the biological father of six of the children. Defendant advised the workers that she was $4800 behind in her rent and over $1000 behind in utility payments. Further, none of the children had been seen by a pediatrician for two years.
DYFS immediately obtained a psychological evaluation of defendant by Dr. Stefan C. Dombrowski, who opined that defendant's "personality [was] fairly unstable, and stressful events may tend to set off an aggressive (verbal or otherwise) episode." The doctor concluded that defendant exhibited symptoms consistent with bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder and schizophrenia. Dr. Dombrowski recommended that defendant undergo substance abuse monitoring, because she had previously tested positive for methamphetamine at the birth of one of her children. He also recommended compliance with psychotropic medication and raised the possibility of removal of the children because of their educational neglect, as well as episodes of domestic violence and defendant's serious mental health history, to which the children had been exposed.
In October 2005, defendant agreed to enter a psychiatric screening center, Crisis Center, after purportedly telling the judge during a hearing, "I rather God take my children than [DYFS] . . . have my children[,]" and hitting a court officer. Defendant was discharged from Crisis Center on November 7, 2005; her record noted that she had become progressively "cooperative and compliant" during her time there.
Also in October 2005, defendant's children were all placed in various group and foster homes. R.S.M., S.R.M. and S.O.M. were placed together in the same foster home. At the time of the children's removal, the house in which they resided was described by a DYFS worker as essentially being in a state of disrepair. Cockroaches were observed in the living room and in the kitchen. The house had a foul odor and there were six bags of garbage in the kitchen. Upstairs, the bathroom had a broken sink and toilet, and the bathtub "had a brown substance in it."
When defendant was released from Crisis Center in November, she contacted DYFS seeking custody of her children. DYFS thereupon implemented various services for defendant and arranged for sibling visitation among the children. DYFS enrolled defendant in an out-patient program called "Miles Stones" for two to four weeks; however, defendant did not attend. DYFS then worked with defendant to secure her admission to the Bermingham Clinic for treatment of her psychological issues; defendant expressed a preference for that program because she had been treated there in the past.
DYFS caseworker Tashana Dashiell testified that the program was voluntary and that defendant's attendance was sporadic.
DYFS also attempted to enroll defendant in an "intensive service program" through the Children's Home Society. However, that organization declined to provide services until defendant "was in treatment for her mental health issues."
DYFS arranged visitation between defendant and the children, starting in November 2005; visitation was scheduled for the first and third Friday of every month. Caseworker Dashiell, however, testified that defendant was noncompliant, particularly at the beginning, and that she would frequently miss visits or show up late; defendant also failed to abide by the policy of confirming her visitation twenty-four hours prior to the scheduled time. As part of DYFS's visitation arrangements, Mercer Street Friends provided defendant with parent education sessions to observe her visitation and provide her with feedback to develop appropriate behavior and to identify behaviors that were "inappropriate or troublesome to the children."
When Dashiell attempted to speak with defendant about her non-compliance with visitation policies, defendant got "very upset and . . . lashed out at" her. Defendant was heard to "ma[k]e some derogatory, irrelevant statements" to Dashiell and to threaten to sue DYFS for keeping her children from her.
Between mid-2006 and the time of trial in December 2008, defendant participated in various services including: (1) therapy sessions at the Bermingham Clinic; (2) parenting classes at Mercer Street Friends; and (3) anger management classes at Catholic Charities.
Douglas Deane, a licensed social worker with whom defendant had therapy sessions at the Bermingham Clinic, reported in April 2008 that defendant "continues to focus in her individual therapy on her emotional stability, strengthening her coping skills that she practices to maintain balance, as evidenced in sound decision making. . . . She continues to learn and practice new skills in managing family relationships as they arise in current situations." Deane further reported that defendant had attained her high school diploma in February 2008 and was studying to be a medical assistant. Deane noted that defendant tended to call the DYFS hotline frequently, and he identified this as "a reflection of her love and concern for her children and her commitment to their well-being."
Also in April 2008, Cheryl Miller, a social worker with Mercer Street Friends, reported that defendant "has continued to be willing to discuss new parenting skills and to practice the strategies during her visits with the children." Miller noted, however, that "[a]lthough . . . [defendant] seems somewhat more able to regain her composure if/when she arrives or becomes upset during visits with her children, the issue of being emotionally volatile remains a concern in terms of consistent and healthy parent child interaction." The report concluded that, "[i]f reunification should occur, the Team would . . . strongly recommend ...