On appeal from a Final Decision of the Department of Children and Families, Division of Youth and Family Services, Docket No. AHU 07-551.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sapp-peterson, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Axelrad, Sapp-Peterson and Espinosa.
Appellant C.H. appeals from a final administrative agency decision by the Director of the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) finding that on November 20, 2003, appellant had committed an act of child abuse as defined by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b) by failing to exercise a minimum degree of care by unreasonably inflicting excessive corporal punishment upon her daughter, T.H. We affirm.
The incident that triggered the Division's finding against C.H. resulted from a referral it received on November 21, 2003, from T.H.'s school nurse, who reported that T.H.'s teacher brought T.H. to her office where she observed red demarcations on the right side of T.H.'s face, three to four inches long, and also observed dark red scratches, two inches in length, on T.H.'s right elbow and left cheek, as well as a greenish demarcation on the middle of her back. The Division dispatched two workers to the school where they interviewed T.H., who stated that her mother had beaten her with a paddle the previous evening after learning that she had told a neighbor that they were without electricity in the home. The school nurse did not believe that T.H. required medical attention. The workers took pictures of the bruises they observed and returned to their office where they discussed the matter with their supervisor. It was agreed at that time that there was no need to involve the police or the prosecutor.
Later that day, the workers appeared at C.H.'s home and advised her of why they were there. C.H. explained that the electricity had gone out on November 19, due to a storm and was restored on November 20. She confirmed that T.H. had gone across the street to a neighbor's house and told the neighbor that there was no electricity in their home. She admitted to spanking T.H. but only on her buttocks while T.H. was still clothed. She told the workers that T.H. had no marks on her when she left for school earlier that day and offered a number of possibilities for the marks, including the sensitive nature of T.H.'s skin that may have developed into a rash from lotion, playing with the cat around her neck, as T.H. was known to do, or doing somersaults. C.H. also suggested the injuries may have been sustained at school.
Two weeks later, at the request of the Division, Dr. Patty Vitale conducted a physical examination of T.H., who was accompanied to the examination by C.H. Dr. Vitale authored a report that was admitted into evidence at the hearing without objection. In the report, Dr. Vitale noted that she found T.H. to be a "well-developed" and "well-nourished female." She was unable to confirm the injuries to the face and elbow because the injuries had since "desorbed without any residual." Although she observed some old scarring on the body, there was no indication of the source of those scars.
Dr. Vitale's report also discussed her conversation with C.H. during which C.H. told her that T.H.'s story was not true and that T.H., like all children, sometimes did not tell the truth. C.H. also explained to Dr. Vitale that she used other forms of discipline upon T.H., but spanked her when "more significant discipline [was] required." She also shared with Dr. Vitale her experience with undisciplined children in her professional capacity and that she intended to use discipline in an effort to prevent her daughter from "end[ing] up on the streets or doing drugs[.]"
Dr. Vitale, in addition to performing a physical examination of T.H., also interviewed her. T.H. told Dr. Vitale that "mom started beating me" using a paddle "[o]n my eye like two times and on my back, that's it[,]" and that her mom hit her with the paddle on her "[f]ace, eyes, [and] cheek." T.H. told Dr. Vitale that this was the only time that C.H. had ever hit her in this way. However, when Dr. Vitale asked her if her mother had ever hit her in the face, she said "No" and reported that her cheek had been red because she scraped herself at home. Further, when asked whether her mom hit her on the face or whether she fell, she said, "I fell."
Dr. Vitale concluded that C.H.'s discipline was inappropriate and that she had used excessive force when disciplining T.H. Dr. Vitale also expressed her concern that C.H. believed that the discipline she administered to T.H. was appropriate. She believed that C.H. would benefit from parenting education and recommended that the Division "assess whether mom could benefit from additional support services."
In a letter dated February 23, 2004, the Division notified C.H. that it had affirmed the finding made by its district office that child abuse was substantiated as to T.H. C.H. appealed this decision and the matter was assigned to an administrative law judge (ALJ) as a ...