October 1, 2010
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF C.M., V.M., R.G., AND P.G., MINORS-RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FN-15-147-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued: September 15, 2010
Before Judges Cuff and Fasciale.
Defendant, H.G., appeals from a May 13, 2009 order finding that she neglected five children in her care, and a July 21, 2009 order denying her motion for reconsideration. H.G. is the biological mother of four of the five children.*fn1 Judge Blaney's findings of neglect were supported by adequate, substantial credible evidence. We affirm.
Although H.G. knew that her husband, J.G., Sr., had a serious drug problem, she went to the gym and left him in charge of R.G., her twenty-one month-old son, and three other children. While H.G. was at the gym, R.G. ingested crack cocaine that he found on the kitchen floor. When H.G. returned, she observed R.G. screaming, out of control, and trembling. On the way to Southern Ocean County Hospital, R.G. shook and appeared to vomit a foamy substance. At the hospital, he had tremors and spoke only one word at a time. R.G. tested positive for cocaine and was transferred to Jersey Shore Medical Center because he was unresponsive to two sedatives that were administered.
Four days before the incident, H.G. confronted J.G., Sr. about his drug problem. She observed him smoking crack cocaine and grabbed a bag of cocaine he was holding. During the struggle, the bag broke and hard pieces of crack cocaine spilled on the kitchen floor. J.G., Sr. admitted he brought cocaine home. H.G. then left the room hoping that J.G., Sr. would clean up the mess, but he failed to remove all of it from the floor.
The police investigated R.G.'s hospitalization and learned from H.G. that J.G., Sr. used cocaine and that she observed marijuana on a nightstand in their bedroom. The police searched the home and discovered deplorable living conditions and more drugs.
They found marijuana on one nightstand and cocaine and suspected heroin on a different nightstand within reach of R.G.'s crib. J.G., Sr. was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a child and drug-related offenses. He was ordered to have no contact with the children.
The children lived in an environment where odors of urine and feces permeated the house, animal feces were located in several places on the mattress of one child, and soiled diapers were lying throughout the home. There were dead cockroaches in the hallway, dirty dishes and old food in the kitchen. Dirty clothing strewn about the home blocked access to the doorways of the bedrooms. Municipal health officials cited H.G. for unsanitary conditions. The conditions in the house were hazardous to all of its occupants.
After a thorough fact-finding hearing, Judge Blaney found by clear and convincing evidence that H.G. neglected the children for two reasons. First, H.G. failed to exercise a minimum degree of care by exposing the children to drugs. Despite knowing that J.G., Sr. had a drug addiction, she left the children with him. R.G. ingested crack cocaine that H.G. knew spilled on the kitchen floor four days earlier, causing him to become violently ill, and she knew that loose marijuana was kept on a table within reach of R.G. Second, H.G. failed to exercise a minimum degree of care when she exposed the children to unhealthy living conditions, such as bacteria from human and animal feces.
On reconsideration, Judge Blaney maintained that there was "more than sufficient evidence" of neglect. He explained that:
[H.G.] placed the children at risk first because of the testimony of the deplorable condition of the house[,] including trash and fecal matter being found throughout the house and accessible to the children. More disturbing was the lack of responsible behavior of [H.G.] who was aware of the drug problem of [J.G., Sr.] and did nothing to take precautions to safeguard the children.
There were drugs found near the nightstand where the baby was located. Additionally, [H.G.] allowed [J.G., Sr.] to be the caretaker when she was fully aware of his past drug issues and knew or should have known of his continued use of drugs or potential to use drugs. She was placing this young child at risk of serious harm because of her not providing safe supervision for the child.
H.G. argues on appeal that the judge failed to find that:
(1) she failed to exercise a minimum degree of care by leaving R.G. with J.G., Sr.; (2) she knew drugs were kept on the nightstand near R.G.'s crib; and (3) R.G. was harmed or was in imminent danger of harm from either the living conditions or by allowing J.G., Sr. to act as the caretaker.
At a fact-finding hearing, the judge must determine whether a child has been abused or neglected. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.44. Our scope of review is limited. "The general rule is that findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998) (citing Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins., Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)). N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c) defines an abused or neglected child as:
[A] child less than 18 years of age . . .
(4) . . . whose physical, mental, or emotional condition has been impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired as the result of the failure of his parent . . . to exercise a minimum degree of care (a) in supplying the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter . . . , or (b) in providing the child with proper supervision . . . by unreasonably . . . allowing to be inflicted harm, or substantial risk thereof . . . .
A parent fails to exercise a minimum degree of care when "[S]he is aware of the dangers inherent in a situation and fails adequately to supervise the child or recklessly creates a risk of serious injury to that child." G.S. v. Dep't of Human Servs., 157 N.J. 161, 181 (1999).
The record contains substantial, credible evidence that H.G. failed to exercise a minimum degree of care in providing adequate shelter and proper supervision. She acted with reckless disregard for the safety of her children by leaving R.G. in deplorable living conditions with a known drug abuser. As a direct result of R.G. ingesting crack cocaine she knew had spilled four days earlier, he was seriously injured, and required hospitalization.