On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FG-15-34-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Axelrad, Fisher and Espinosa.
In this appeal, we consider the arguments of defendant S.B. (defendant) regarding the termination of her parental rights to four children fathered by three different men. The rights of one of the fathers, E.B., was also terminated; he has not appealed. The trial judge did not terminate the parental rights of the other two fathers, T.T. and C.P. We affirm in part and remand in part.
The circumstances that led to the commencement of this action and the termination of defendant's parental rights began when defendant, who was then fourteen-years old, gave birth to her first child, J.T., on January 23, 2004. T.T., the child's father, was also fourteen. The child was born prematurely and the hospital refused to release the child to defendant because she was living in a welfare hotel with her mother. The Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) intervened and, after investigating, decided to allow the child to be released to T.T., who lived with his mother in Lakewood. Defendant also moved into T.T.'s home. However, in April 2004, defendant's mother moved out of the welfare hotel and into an apartment in Lakewood. Defendant left T.T.'s home and moved in with her mother; the infant remained with T.T. and his mother.
Conflict almost immediately developed between defendant and her mother. Despite the Division's best efforts to achieve stability, defendant moved back and forth between her mother's and adult sister's residences, and also began "staying out a lot."
In March 2005, the Division learned that defendant was pregnant and obtained her admittance to a residence program for pregnant teens. In early June 2005, T.T.'s home --- where J.T. continued to reside -- was raided by police, and T.T.'s mother was arrested for firearm possession. The child was removed from T.T.'s home and placed with defendant's mother.
On October 7, 2005, defendant gave birth to her second child, L.B., and returned with the child to the residence program for pregnant teens. Unfortunately, two months later, defendant had an altercation with another resident and was expelled. Defendant did not then return to school or get a job. Instead, she and L.B. moved back into her mother's apartment where her oldest child, J.T., was still residing. The Division continued to monitor the situation.
On September 21, 2006, defendant gave birth. This third child, J.B., was born prematurely and with a host of medical conditions, including respiratory failure, apnea, gastroesophageal reflux, ateriosus, anemia, immature retinas and feeding problems. J.B. remained hospitalized for nearly two months, where he was intubated and placed on a ventilator. Before releasing the child, the doctor gave defendant a list of specific instructions pertaining to feeding, medication and care. Defendant was also told to make appointments for follow-up visits with a pediatrician and an ophthalmologist within one week of the child's release, and, later, with a cardiologist. In addition, defendant was instructed to ensure that J.B. was connected to a "cardiopulmonary resuscitation" machine and an apnea monitor for most of the day.
On November 22, 2006, a Division caseworker visited defendant's home to ensure she was heeding the doctor's instructions. The caseworker's observations resulted in an emergency removal of all three children. The caseworker first noticed that J.B. was not connected to his apnea monitor; when asked, defendant said the "machine kept beeping and it was annoying." The caseworker next learned that defendant had not taken J.B. for any follow-up appointments, despite the hospital's explicit instructions. The caseworker also heard defendant threaten to "beat [J.T.'s] ass," after which she jokingly admitted to abusing J.T. earlier in the day. In addition, the caseworker saw defendant holding J.B. in an inappropriate manner; according to the caseworker, defendant "pretty much was not supporting his head, wasn't supporting his back, kind of flopping the baby around like a rag doll."
Following removal, J.T. and L.B. were placed in a non-relative foster home, and J.B., the newborn, was transported to the hospital. The next day, J.B. was released from the hospital and placed in a foster home.*fn1
Defendant gave birth to her fourth child, N.P., on May 31, 2007. N.P. was born prematurely and with medical problems, including apnea, intraventricular hemorrhaging and sepsis. She remained hospitalized until August 2007 when released to the Division, which transferred her to Saint Clare's Specialized Home Provider Services program for medically fragile children.
After a three-day trial, the judge terminated defendant's parental rights to all four children. The judge also terminated E.B.'s parental rights to his two children, L.B. and J.B., finding he had never played a role in their lives. The judge, however, did not terminate the parental rights of T.T., the father of the oldest child, or C.P., the father of the youngest child. The judge was not satisfied that the Division made reasonable efforts to ...