On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FN-04-492-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Rodríguez and LeWinn.
Defendant is the birth mother of three children: Ken, born in 1996; Kal, born in 1999; and Kelly, born in 2004.*fn1 On June 2, 2009, the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) filed a complaint against defendant and her paramour, D.W., alleging that they had abused and neglected the children. Following a series of case management conferences between June and August 2009, the judge held a dispositional hearing on September 23, 2009, finding that defendant had abused or neglected the children through the use of "excessive corporal punishment as it relates specifically to [Ken] and as it relates to the possibility of that excessive corporal punishment for both [Kal and Kelly]."
On December 17, 2009, defendant filed a motion for entry of a suspended judgment pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.52. Following oral argument on January 11, 2010, the trial judge denied her motion, and entered an order to that effect. Defendant now appeals from the denial of her motion for a suspended judgment.*fn2
The pertinent factual background, adduced from the pleadings and the testimony at the various hearings below, may be summarized as follows.
DYFS's involvement in June 2009 was triggered by defendant's call to the agency on May 29, 2009, requesting that Ken be removed from her home due to behavioral problems. DYFS caseworker Lynne Wesley responded to defendant's home; during Wesley's visit, Ken told her that defendant and D.W. beat him with an extension cord. Ken told Wesley that he did not want to remain in defendant's home because of D.W.'s physical abuse. Wesley also interviewed Kal who stated that D.W. had hit him with an extension cord.
Wesley reported the abuse to the Pennsauken Police Department on the same day as her visit. Defendant was subsequently arrested and charged with aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child. DYFS removed all three children from defendant's home.
DYFS thereafter filed its abuse and neglect complaint on June 2, 2009. According to the complaint, defendant had prior involvement with the agency on June 4, 2008, when DYFS "substantiated [defendant] for physical abuse against [Ken]." On that occasion, Ken "disclosed that [defendant] had punched him several times with her fists[,] . . . [and] that his mother gets really angry at times, which scares him." At that time, DYFS implemented a "safety plan," and defendant "was also referred for parenting classes and in-home counseling."
Ken "is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and classified as emotionally disturbed . . . ." He had been expelled from school due to his threatening behavior. Defendant "denied that [D.W.] had physically abused her children," but acknowledged that "sometimes she gets upset and had previously beaten her children with an extension cord out of anger."
The trial judge granted DYFS's request to have defendant submit to a psychological evaluation, which was reviewed at the August 17, 2009 case management conference. The evaluation "recommended . . . [an] appropriate psychotropic regimen for symptoms of depression and anxiety[,] . . . weekly psychological counseling, participat[ion] in parenting classes, anger management classes, and . . . [ninety] day reviews of [defendant's] progress in the recommended treatment planning." As of that hearing date, defendant had had her initial appointment for anger management classes and was scheduled to begin parenting classes within the month.
At the September 23, 2009 factfinding hearing, defendant declined to testify or stipulate to any facts because her criminal charges were pending. DYFS caseworker Donna Dobson testified that defendant denied using an extension cord to discipline Ken, but "has in the past used a belt when it was necessary." Dobson stated that defendant was "in the process of doing anger management and parenting skills," and acknowledged that she was "in compliance with her services."
Ken was placed in the custody of his father. Kal was placed in the custody of his maternal great aunt. Kelly was placed in the custody of her paternal grandmother.
In support of her motion for a suspended judgment, defendant noted the numerous services she had sought, both independently and with DYFS's involvement. She asserted that she had "shown remorse and . . . ...