On appeal from the Division of Youth and Family Services, Department of Children and Families, AHU-07-178.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 23, 2010
Before Judges Skillman, Fuentes and Simonelli.
K.A. appeals from the final determination of the Director of the Division of Youth and Family Services (Division or DYFS) that found sufficient grounds to substantiate allegations of abuse or neglect against K.A. involving her eight-year-old daughter A.A. We reverse.
We derive the following facts from the record developed before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) assigned to this case.
The incident that gave rise to the Division's intervention occurred on October 3, 2006. On that day, K.A. was helping her daughter, A.A., with her homework after the child returned from school. A.A. would not obey her mother's instructions to complete her homework, so K.A. sent A.A. to her room for a timeout. A.A. refused to stay inside her room during the time-out, however, leaving her room several times in defiance of her mother's instructions. In an effort to address her daughter's disobedience, K.A. struck her four or five times on the shoulder with a closed fist and sent A.A. back to her room. The episode lasted only four to five seconds. At the time of the incident, A.A. was eight years-old and had been diagnosed with pervasive development disorder and attention deficient disorder. The child took medication for the latter condition.
On October 5, 2006, a classroom aide at A.A.'s school noticed a bruise on A.A.'s shoulder, which the aide described as a "paw print," one round bruise with several smaller dotted bruises above it. When asked how she got the bruise, A.A. responded that her mother had hit her. The classroom aide notified the school's principal who, in turn, contacted DYFS.
DYFS assigned caseworker Maia Adelman to investigate the matter. Adelman interviewed A.A. and K.A. that afternoon at their home. In her report, Adelman noted that A.A. "was extremely difficult to interview, as she would not sit still and would not answer most of [her] questions. [A.A.] only wanted [Adelman] to play a game with her and [became] angry when [Adelman] continued to try to just talk to her." At some point during the interview, Adelman observed the bruises on A.A.'s shoulder, which she described as "four quarter-sized bruises and one 1/2 dollar-sized bruise on [A.A.'s] left shoulder blade" that were "slightly darker in color then [A.A.'s] complexion, which was tanned due to her Indian descent."
When Adelman interviewed K.A. she "was sobbing throughout the interview" and admitted to hitting her daughter with a closed fist approximately four or five times a few days earlier. K.A. explained that A.A. was not listening to her on the date of the incident and refused to stay in her room for a time-out. She also told the caseworker that she was very stressed and overwhelmed in caring for A.A. because A.A.'s father worked until approximately nine o'clock in the evening and then took work calls from India until midnight every night. K.A. also told Adelman that all of her family members reside in India and that she had not formed any friendships in this country.
After the interview, K.A. agreed to participate in various family services provided by the Division. She attended therapy sessions, went to meditation, and exercised at a gym. In addition to these efforts by K.A., the child's father changed his work schedule so that he could be at home to help K.A. with A.A.'s care. DYFS noted a remarkable change in the family within a few weeks.
At the hearing before the ALJ, the parties stipulated to the following facts:
1) At the time in question, A.A. attended Larchmont Elementary School in October 2006.
2) The A. family resided in Mount Laurel in October of 2006 and consists of mother... [K.A.], [age 33 at the time,] Father, R.A., [age 38 at the time], and child, [A.A.], [age 8 at the time].
3) The family came to the U.S. from India when [A.A.] was 18 months-old.
4) Maia Adelman was the caseworker assigned to the case from the Burlington local office.
5) The incident occurred on or about October 3, 2006, and was reported to the Division of Youth and Family Services, or DYFS, on October 5, 2006.
6) On October 5, 2006, an aide at the school noticed the bruising on [A.A.'s] arm when her ...