On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FG-09-73-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Axelrad, Fisher and Espinosa.
In this appeal, defendant C.L. argues the trial judge erroneously terminated her parental rights to her daughter, X.R.C.-L. (hereafter Jasmine, a fictitious name). After closely examining the record, we affirm.
Plaintiff Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) first became involved with defendant in September 2005 when she was seventeen years old. Defendant, at that time, called the Division to report that her mother refused to enroll her in school. The Division substantiated educational neglect in light of the mother's acknowledgement that she was "not willing to put [defendant] in school" because "she [was] tired of [her] and [did] not want to be bothered anymore with her." The mother told the Division she wanted to "wash her hands" of defendant because she "does not listen . . . [and] she goes and comes as she pleases and does whatever she wants to do." The Division also learned at the time that defendant was five months pregnant and had not been receiving pre-natal care.
Because defendant was essentially abandoned by her mother, she had no stable home and had been "bouncing [around] from relative . . . to relative." Concerned these circumstances posed potential harm for defendant's unborn child, the Division contacted defendant's father to see if he would allow defendant to reside with him. The father said he would accept her if she wanted, but he anticipated she would refuse. As predicted, the Division urged defendant to move in with her father, but she resisted. As a result, defendant continued to reside with other relatives.
Jasmine was born on February 5, 2006. Following their release from the hospital, defendant and Jasmine moved in with defendant's aunt in Jersey City. A few months later, defendant left that home in order to reside with a paramour and his family, taking Jasmine with her. However, defendant soon returned Jasmine to her great aunt's home but continued to live with her paramour's family. Defendant left that residence and moved into her paramour's sister's home and later still moved in with her own father. Jasmine continued to reside with her great aunt in Jersey City.
On September 6, 2006, defendant's eighteenth birthday, the trial court awarded the Division custody of Jasmine based on the judge's concerns regarding defendant's inability to provide Jasmine with a stable home. Over the next several months, the Division worked with defendant in an attempt to remedy the problems standing in the way of reunification. Defendant was referred for psychological evaluations, psychotherapy, drug assessments, and parenting classes; she was also provided with opportunities to visit with Jasmine. Although defendant completed one of the parenting programs and was partially compliant with the visitation schedule, she did not partake or engage in a majority of the other services offered by the Division, particularly the substance abuse programs recommended.
As a result, in July 2007, the Division changed its goal from reunification to relative adoption. The child's great aunt expressed an interest in adopting Jasmine and, on July 17, 2007, the trial court entered an order approving the Division's plan. Although the Division continued to make available a variety of services, defendant remained largely non-compliant.
In May and June 2009, Judge Elaine L. Davis presided over a five-day guardianship trial. By this time, Jasmine was well over three years old and had spent most of her life with her great aunt. On June 25, 2009, Judge Davis rendered an oral decision and a judgment terminating defendant's parental rights to Jasmine.
In appealing, defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding in favor of the Division, by clear and convincing evidence, on any of the four prongs. We reject her arguments.
Parents have a constitutionally protected right to the care, custody and control of their children. Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 1394-95, 71 L.Ed. 2d 599, 606 (1982); In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 346 (1999). "The rights to conceive and to raise one's children have been deemed 'essential,' 'basic civil rights . . .,' 'far more precious . . . than property rights.'" Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 1212, 31 L.Ed. 2d 551, 558 (1972) (internal citations omitted). "The preservation and strengthening of family ...