On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Cape May County, Docket No. FG-05-03-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Wefing, Grall and Messano.
Defendant R.G. appeals from the termination of her parental rights to her daughter A.K. We have considered the arguments she raises in light of the record and applicable legal standards. We affirm.
R.G. is the mother of two daughters: A.K., born March 6, 1999; and G.V., who was born September 22, 1994 and is not a subject of this litigation. Commencing in August 2000, the Division of Youth and Family Services (D.Y.F.S.) received three referrals regarding the family. In each instance the allegations involved drug use by R.G. and domestic violence between her and her boyfriend, M.K. R.G. obtained a restraining order against M.K., and D.Y.F.S. opened a case file on the family after substantiating a finding of abuse and neglect against R.G.
On November 28, 2000, D.Y.F.S. received a referral claiming that R.G. was addicted to pain killers and was permitting M.K. to reside with her and the children. A finding of neglect was again substantiated, and the children were removed from R.G.'s custody and placed in the care of R.V., their father.*fn1 Shortly thereafter, however, R.V. indicated that he could no longer care for the children. They were placed with M.G., R.G.'s sister, who cared for the children for approximately one month and then also voluntarily relinquished custody. The children were placed in foster care.
Following the removal, R.G. was allowed supervised visits with her children, and D.Y.F.S. provided the family with services that included drug abuse assessment and treatment, and counseling. R.G. complied with referrals made by D.Y.F.S., but she struggled to maintain her sobriety. The children remained in foster care for approximately two years, until November 2002, when both were returned to R.G.'s custody.
In November 2005, A.K. was hospitalized due to a severe tooth infection that resulted from the lack of any dental care. The child underwent oral surgery and remained in the hospital for treatment. D.Y.F.S.'s investigation revealed that G.V. was enrolled in school, but A.K. was not. R.G. told the caseworker that she did not take A.K. to a dentist because she did not know who would accept Medicaid and because she had no transportation or money. D.Y.F.S. substantiated a finding of neglect against R.G.; although the children were not removed from the home, a case file was opened and services were provided again to the family.
On December 7, 2005, D.Y.F.S. was called because R.G. failed to pick up G.V. after school. The guidance counselor was unable to contact R.G. at the motel where the family was living. When police went to the motel, R.G. was there and claimed she had lost track of time. However, a family member advised D.Y.F.S. that R.G., who was participating in a methadone maintenance program, was disoriented and not capable of parenting the children. In January 2006, the D.Y.F.S. caseworker reported that R.G. had failed to keep appointments with an oral surgeon for A.K.'s dental care. R.G. agreed to permit Family Preservation Services to assist with any problems that might arise.
On May 9, 2006, R.G. admitted to her caseworker that she had used crack cocaine with a neighbor three nights earlier. The landlord at the motel told the worker that R.G. often left the children unattended. The school reported that both children had not been in school for a week prior to the date of the referral, that A.K. had missed twenty-nine days of school since December, and that the child appeared less happy and more withdrawn than previously. The children were once again removed from the home, taken to a doctor for placement exams, and placed in a foster home together.
On May 1l, 2006, D.Y.F.S. filed a verified complaint and order to show cause seeking custody of A.K. and G.V. The judge granted the request on an emergent basis, and ordered R.G. to cooperate with any services provided by D.Y.F.S., attend substance abuse treatment, and submit to random urine screens. On June 7, R.G. tested positive for cocaine and inpatient treatment was recommended at Seabrook House, a facility that permitted R.G. to reside with her daughters. R.G. refused to participate in any inpatient treatment.
At a fact-finding hearing held on August 16, R.G. stipulated to a finding of abuse and neglect, admitting that she had placed her children at substantial risk of harm because of her substance abuse. She continued to participate in an intensive out-patient drug treatment program and produced negative urine screens through November.
R.G. was unable to secure permanent housing, however, and D.Y.F.S.'s efforts to assist her were unsuccessful; she later moved in with a friend. In March 2007, R.G., who suffers from Crohn's disease, was hospitalized and underwent surgery for an intestinal blockage. She required post-surgical rehabilitation and a second surgery in April. Concerned about her health, R.G. expressed an unwillingness to seek employment. D.Y.F.S. decided to seek termination of R.G.'s parental rights over both children.
On September 11, R.G. once again tested positive for cocaine. In October, she moved in with another friend and obtained employment. Although R.G. was still participating in her methadone maintenance and relapse prevention classes, she tested positive for cocaine twice in January 2008, and again in February, March, May, and June. She left her job, explaining to D.Y.F.S. that she did not want to work during the summer. Throughout the entire litigation, R.G. regularly and routinely participated in visitation with her two daughters.
In the interim, upon removal, A.K. and G.V. were placed in the same foster home. However, on October 9, 2006, G.V. was removed from the foster home and placed in the Adolescent Unit of Bridgeton Hospital after threatening to burn down her house and kill her foster sister. On October 12, G.V. was discharged from the hospital and placed with M.M. and her family, with whom both girls had resided during their prior separation from their mother. The next day, A.K. joined the same foster family.
In December, G.V. was removed from the foster home and again placed in Bridgeton Hospital due to behavioral concerns. M.M. refused to take G.V. back in the home but wanted A.K. to remain with her. A.K. expressed to her caseworker that she missed her sister a great deal, and D.Y.F.S. arranged for visits between the two girls. M.M. eventually indicated that she wished to adopt A.K.; however, she expressed concerns about A.K.'s behavior after her visits with R.G. and G.V.
D.Y.F.S. caseworker Patricia Handshaw recounted much of this history at the trial that commenced in April 2008.*fn2
Handshaw also testified regarding D.Y.F.S.'s efforts to provide A.K. with counseling during the entire process, noting that the child preferred not to be adopted and wanted to be reunited with her mother; if that was not feasible, A.K. wished to be placed somewhere with her sister; and, if that was not possible, A.K. wanted to stay in her current foster home.*fn3 Handshaw testified that at the time of trial, M.M. indicated that she was not in a position to adopt A.K. Handshaw explained that if D.Y.F.S. was granted guardianship of A.K., it would continue to look for an adoptive home, but there was no guarantee that if adopted, A.K. would be able to maintain contact with R.G. and G.V.
Linda R. Jeffrey, D.Y.F.S.'s psychological expert, testified regarding her evaluation of R.G. and the bonding evaluations she conducted between R.G. and A.K., and M.M and A.K., in December 2007. R.G. acknowledged to Jeffrey that she had abused prescription drugs and heroin, having started ...