On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FN-09-379-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Graves, Sabatino and J.N. Harris.
Defendant M.M. appeals from an order dated June 16, 2009, terminating this Title Nine action, N.J.S.A. 9:6-1 to -8.73, after the trial court found by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant abused or neglected her son, J.N., who was born in August 2000. Defendant has two other children, C.M., a son, who was born in 1988, and D.M., a daughter, who was born in 1990. C.M. and D.M. were living outside of the family home when the incidents underlying this litigation occurred. We affirm.
On May 3, 2007, a social worker at J.N.'s school reported to the Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) that J.N. had come to school with bruises on his arms. According to the social worker, J.N. did not seem to be in pain, but he indicated some of the bruises were caused by his mother hitting him, and others by falling while walking in his house at night because his family had no electricity. J.N. stated that his family had not had electricity or hot water "for a long time," and his mother had to boil water on the stove to bathe him.
On the same day, a Division caseworker, Romanita Rivera (Rivera), went to defendant's home at approximately 4:35 p.m. to investigate the referral. Upon arrival, Rivera knocked on the front door several times and rang the doorbell, but there was no response. After speaking to a nearby business owner, who informed her that defendant lived in the home, Rivera called the telephone number listed on the referral from J.N.'s school, but found it was a non-working number. At 5:46 p.m., and again at 6:35 p.m., Rivera returned to the home and knocked on the door several times and rang the doorbell, but did not receive a response.
After returning to her vehicle to call her supervisor, Rivera observed a child appear in the window of defendant's second floor apartment. She again knocked on the door of the home and rang the doorbell, but because no one responded, she called the police for assistance.
Two police officers arrived approximately thirty minutes later, and Rivera advised them of her unsuccessful attempts to gain entry to the home. The officers knocked on the door and either defendant or J.N. answered several minutes later.*fn1 Rivera identified herself and stated that she was sent to investigate a report the Division had received. According to Rivera, after defendant "said it was fine," the officers entered the home and observed that J.N. was there.
Defendant informed Rivera she did not hear the doorbell because it was powered by electricity, which had been shut off for about one month because she fell behind on the payments. She explained that her electric bills totaled $500 or $600 per month, which she believed was caused by an ambulance garage located on the first floor of her building that she suspected was using her electrical outlets. Defendant stated she applied for financial assistance with the bills about two weeks earlier. Rivera confirmed that the apartment did not have hot water, but did have cooking gas. Defendant told Rivera she boiled water to bathe J.N. once, and had been bathing him at the home of C.R., the mother of E.R., defendant's boyfriend.
Because defendant did not "pose a threat," Rivera determined she could complete the investigation without the assistance of the officers, who then left the apartment. Upon interviewing defendant, Rivera learned that defendant's daughter, D.M., who was sixteen at the time, had moved to the home of her paternal grandmother, G.B., when the electricity was shut off.
Rivera also introduced herself to J.N., who was then six years old, and asked him to give her a tour of the home, which consisted of three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. Defendant's "bedroom was organized and fully furnished," but J.N.'s bedroom "contained a small sofa, in which the cushions become a bed." Rivera observed two or three bruises on J.N.'s left arm and one on his right arm, in different stages of coloring. J.N. told Rivera that the bruises on his left arm were caused by his mother hitting him with a belt and the bruise on his right arm was caused by falling and bumping into the wall. According to Rivera, J.N. stated that his mother hit him with a belt "all over." J.N. also told Rivera there was no heat or hot water at the apartment, that he had been showering at C.R.'s home, and that he did not want to stay at the apartment.
Rivera took photographs of the bruises on J.N.'s arms, as well as other small pink marks on his body that appeared to be insect bites, which were submitted to the court as evidence in the Title Nine proceedings. While speaking with defendant, Rivera smelled alcohol on her breath and asked if she had been drinking. Defendant "stated she had been drinking vodka and that she takes 20 pills and asked the worker if she wanted to see them." Rivera told defendant she wanted to see the pills, but defendant never showed them to her.
When Rivera asked defendant about the bruises on J.N.'s arms, defendant denied hitting him and stated J.N. has "two left feet." Defendant claimed if she had hit J.N. with a belt, it "would leave a welt," not bruises. Rivera discussed with defendant the services she would need to complete to ensure that J.N. remained in her custody. Defendant informed Rivera she was attending stress management classes, "road to recovery" courses, and counseling services. Defendant claimed she suffers from depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and showed Rivera a prescription bottle for an antidepressant.
As the evening progressed and the apartment grew darker, Rivera noticed roaches coming out in the kitchen and told defendant they needed to leave. Rivera then drove defendant and J.N. to the home of C.R., the mother of defendant's boyfriend. While driving to C.R.'s home, defendant told Rivera that her son is ...