On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Mercer County, FG-11-90-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued telephonically March 5, 2010
Before Judges Payne, Miniman and Waugh.
In these consolidated appeals, L.C., the mother of daughters M.M.Q. (older daughter) and J.F.Q. (younger daughter), and M.J.Q., the husband of L.C., the biological father of the older daughter and the legal father of the younger daughter, appeal an order terminating their parental rights to the two children. Both argue that the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) failed to meet any of the prongs of the best interest test set forth at N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a. We affirm.
The record reflects that the older daughter was born on December 1, 2004 when L.C. was seventeen years of age and M.J.Q. was eighteen. L.C. and M.J.Q. married on June 5, 2006. The younger daughter was born on September 29, 2007. M.J.Q. is not the biological father of the younger daughter, who L.C. sometimes claims was the product of rape but may have been the product of a consensual relationship.
In January 2005, L.C., the older daughter, and L.C.'s two siblings were removed from the residence of L.C.'s mother by DYFS because of the mother's drug abuse. They were placed with a family friend. A psychological examination of L.C., conducted by Dr. Lauren Rossi on February 3, 2005, disclosed that L.C. suffered from depressive and post-traumatic stress disorders. The doctor recommended that L.C. and her daughter be placed in a long-term, structured, independent living program for young mothers and that therapy be provided to L.C. to address her psychological disorders and history of cutting behaviors.*fn1 On February 9, 2005, the friend with whom L.C. and her daughter was placed advised DYFS that L.C. and M.J.Q. had engaged in an altercation that resulted in L.C.'s arrest. The family friend also reported that L.C. was again pregnant*fn2 and that she had again attempted suicide. The friend requested that L.C. and her daughter be placed in foster care.
On March 1, 2005, L.C. was placed in a foster home. Her daughter was first placed at Angel's Wings, and after thirty days, was placed in foster care apart from L.C. Efforts to place L.C. in the PATH program were rejected by her on the ground that she would prefer to live with M.J.Q. Although, during the Spring of 2005, L.C. attempted to complete high school and, by May 2005, was attending counseling and looking for a job, on June 23, 2005, L.C.'s foster mother informed DYFS that L.C. should be placed elsewhere, because she did not get along with the other girls in the home.
On July 7, 2005, the older daughter was moved to the home of her maternal great uncle, S.C. (uncle) and his girlfriend of thirteen years, A.S. (aunt), but one month later, both the daughter and L.C. were placed in an extended family care home through the Children's Home Society of New Jersey (CHS). The placement did not proceed smoothly, as L.C. was rude to her foster mother, disruptive, and she engaged in angry outbursts. On September 23, 2005, the foster mother informed DYFS that, as the result of L.C.'s behavior, which she described as "out of control," she would not permit L.C. to return to her home. She additionally informed DYFS that she was concerned about the level of care that L.C. was providing to her baby, and she feared that L.C. would, one day, hurt the child. DYFS claims that L.C. and her daughter were thereupon placed in temporary respite care.*fn3 During this period, L.C. was enrolled in high school and in an intensive parenting program. However, on October 27, 2005, the court ordered that L.C. be permitted to return to her mother's residence and that her daughter be placed again with her aunt and uncle.
In November 2005, L.C. was dismissed from ongoing abuse and neglect litigation instituted against her mother because she had reached the age of eighteen. However, DYFS was ordered to file a Title 9 complaint against L.C. as the result of her noncompliance with services and her daughter's continued need for placement.*fn4 Supervised visitation with the daughter was arranged through PEI kids, and DYFS was ordered to arrange for in-home counseling for L.C. through the Family Service program.
In December 2005, L.C. advised DYFS that she had been employed by Party City since November and that M.J.Q. had enlisted in the military and was stationed in Virginia. DYFS confirmed with M.J.Q. that he had enlisted in the Navy and determined that he was interested in caring for his daughter once he obtained housing. However, M.J.Q. did not follow up in any respect. He received an "other than honorable" discharge from the service in November 2006, allegedly as the result of fighting.
In January 2006, L.C. agreed to comply with services provided by DYFS, including parenting skills classes, a psychological evaluation, a substance abuse evaluation, individual therapy, and regular visitation. However, compliance with services was spotty. L.C. was enrolled in parenting skills classes beginning on March 15, 2006. In April 2006, she was briefly incarcerated for simple assault upon a girlfriend of M.J.Q.
At a hearing conducted on April 4, 2006, the supervising Family Part judge entered a finding of abuse and neglect against L.C. Although the judge's order does not appear in the record, the complaint for guardianship filed by DYFS alleges that the finding was entered after L.C. "admitted that [she] failed to engage in services including anger management and a psychological evaluation and had not been able to offer [her daughter] a safe and stable home."
According to the complaint, on April 7, 2006, L.C. was evaluated by Dr. Vivian Schnaidman, who found that, although L.C. loved her daughter, she did not appear to be well equipped to be a parent to the child.*fn5 The doctor recommended psychotherapy and possible administration of psychotropic medicine.*fn6 In an order entered on May 25, 2006, the Family Part judge required that DYFS implement immediately the services recommended by Dr. Schnaidman, and that they "should be in place" prior to the next court hearing, scheduled for June 22, 2006. Although services were not provided by the specified date, it appears that they were offered by July 26, 2006.
On June 5, 2006, L.C. and M.J.Q. were married. However, following his discharge from the Navy and return to New Jersey in November 2006, M.J.Q. engaged in multiple episodes of domestic violence against L.C. Injuries sustained by L.C. resulted in hospitalization and a termination of her employment. M.J.Q. was incarcerated in the Mercer County Correctional Institute from March 10, 2007 to early September 2007 on charges of armed robbery and unlawful possession of a handgun. Upon his release, M.J.Q. took up residence with his mother. He was reincarcerated on October 19, 2007 and remained in pretrial detention at the time of the termination trial. L.C. and M.J.Q. separated prior to his reincarceration, but no complaint for divorce had been filed.
On July 21, 2006, L.C. commenced an intensive supervision program administered by CHS that provided parenting skills classes and individual counseling. However, on October 26, 2006, L.C. advised a representative from HomeFront, an organization aiding the homeless, that she was homeless and needed assistance. On December 6, 2006, she was ordered to comply with services offered to her and to obtain stable housing. CHS was ordered to provide counseling on domestic violence to L.C., but it does not appear that L.C. participated in those services.
In an interview by DYFS with the aunt and uncle, conducted on January 9, 2007, they were informed that the older daughter's case had been transferred to the adoption unit. The foster parents responded that they had always wished the child to be reunited with her biological mother, but that they did not feel that L.C. was ready to parent. If the rights of the biological parents were terminated, the aunt and uncle indicated a willingness to adopt. Also in January 2007, CHS advised DYFS that L.C. had been attending parenting classes and individual therapy. She was living with a former foster mother at the time and was contributing to her rent, but they had no heat.
After L.C. was informed in February 2007 of DYFS's plan for adoption of her daughter, L.C. became inconsistent in her attendance at counseling and in parenting classes. Also in February 2007, DYFS learned from the aunt and uncle that L.C. was three months pregnant and that she planned to keep the baby. During the same month, the aunt informed DYFS that L.C. had quit her job, and that the apartment she was living in had no heat. By March, L.C. had moved to church-sponsored housing. CHS reported that month that the organization supported relative adoption of the older daughter and that L.C. was not stable enough for reunification with her. Indeed, a month later, it was reported that L.C. was sleeping on the floor and lacked food.
As stated previously, on March 10, 2007, M.J.Q. was arrested for armed robbery and unlawful possession of a firearm.
At a permanency hearing conducted on March 22, 2007, the judge ordered that DYFS file a guardianship petition by May 14, 2007, observing that DYFS had provided reasonable efforts toward reunification and that the circumstances leading to the older daughter's removal had not changed. The petition was filed on May 24, 2007. On May 30, 2007, DYFS requested that CHS close its case with L.C., and abuse and neglect litigation was dismissed on the following day.
In July 2007, L.C. was evaluated by psychologist Jonathan Mack and a bonding evaluation was conducted.*fn7 At that time, she reported that she had been living at HomeFront's Huchet House, a group home for pregnant women and new mothers, for approximately one month and that she was studying for her GED and taking computer and parenting classes. Dr. Mack diagnosed L.C. as suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and personality disorder not otherwise specified (NOS) with paranoid and borderline personality features. Dr. Mack concluded:
Based on the information available to me,
[L.C.] does have a strong bond with her daughter. [The older daughter] is strongly bonded to her mother. It is the judgment of this examiner that it would be detrimental in the long-term interest of [the daughter] to not have her mother in her life.
[L.C.] does have serious psychiatric conditions that have not yet fully responded to treatment, as of the time of this evaluation. Due to the fact that these problems are still ongoing, [L.C.] does require ongoing, intensive mental health treatment. It is judged that her emotional instability is such that she is not yet fully fit to be an independent parent of [her daughter] at this time. On the other hand, it is obvious that [the daughter] is bonded with her mother. I would recommend a compromise situation in which [the daughter] remains with her foster parents, but is able to have ongoing visitations with her mother. Such a compromise would perhaps be met by kinship legal guardianship with the foster parents, instead of full adoption. This also takes into account the young age of [L.C.] and allows her the possibility that she will continue to grow and adapt over time.
Additionally, the doctor noted that part of L.C.'s difficulties might be the result of multiple concussions, and he recommended a full neuropsychological evaluation.
On August 29, 2007, L.C. was evaluated by Dr. Amy Becker-Mattes at the request of DYFS. Dr. Becker-Mattes diagnosed L.C. as suffering from an intermittent explosive disorder and a depressive disorder NOS, as well as a personality disorder NOS with narcissistic, depressive, schizoid, antisocial and borderline features. The doctor noted L.C.'s "extremely difficult childhood," which included physical and emotional abuse, multiple rapes, and two psychiatric hospitalizations. The doctor noted additionally that L.C.'s "inability to comply with DYFS requirements" has interfered with efforts at reuniting her with her daughter.
[L.C.] has been involved in physical fights, has resisted following rules in a variety of residential placements and had one episode of incarceration. Although there have been some periods when [L.C.] has involved herself in required services such as parenting classes, individual therapy and visitation, there ha[s] also been a significant amount of backsliding and problems, such that she has been unable to provide a "safe and stable" environment for her child. Most recently [L.C.'s] DYFS worker, Jackie Clarke, reported that she had heard that [L.C.] is squandering and/or mismanaging her money and food stamps while residing at Huchet House and that [L.C.] is disregarding the rules of the program in which she is enrolled. She has been involved in physical fights on a number of occasions, both recently and in the past.
Although [L.C.] professes to love her child and does interact with [her daughter] very nicely... there is little indication that she comprehends and/or is able to follow through on the responsibilities of parenthood. She is unable ...