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New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. D.J.W and M.M.W

December 20, 2010


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FG-15-59-08.

Per curiam.



Submitted November 15, 2010 - Decided Before Judges Rodriguez and LeWinn.

In these consolidated matters, M.M.W., the biological mother, and D.J.W., the biological father, appeal from a judgment terminating their parental rights to their five children who currently range in age from eleven to two-and-a-half years old. We affirm both appeals.

The Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) first became involved with the family in February 2001, when the agency effectuated an emergency removal of the parties' two children who had been left at home alone while defendants were drinking at a local tavern. At that time defendants were both arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of minors. The children were "physically dirty" at the time of their removal; the home was also in disarray, with beer bottles and marijuana in open view. Because no relatives were willing or able to assume care of the two children, DYFS placed them in an emergency shelter.

The children were treated for a variety of medical conditions; the elder child was diagnosed with cerebral palsey, and both were determined to have had fetal alcohol syndrome.

DYFS filed its first abuse/neglect complaint against defendants on February 13, 2001, and offered them services including substance abuse counseling and psychological evaluations. D.J.W., however, was uncooperative with the evaluations and denied engaging in any conduct that led to the removal of the children.

In March 2001, Dr. Robert Puglia performed a psychological evaluation of M.M.W. and concluded that she tended to "minimize[] her responsibility for having left her two young children . . . [unattended] for several hours," and that her "attempts to distort the truth . . . indicate a lack of remorse as well as attempts to manipulate the outcome of th[e] assessment." Puglia recommended several programs for M.M.W., including parenting classes and anger management. She attended only three of twelve parenting class sessions and did not attend the anger management program in 2001, but increased her attendance at both programs in 2002.

Defendants were permitted supervised visitation with the children between May 2001 and January 2002; M.M.W. attended approximately two-thirds of those visits, while D.J.W. attended less than one-third of the visits.

DYFS filed its first guardianship complaint on April 18, 2002, alleging that defendants were incapable of providing a safe and stable home for the two children. In support of its complaint, DYFS noted defendants' pattern of noncompliance with services.

The two children were returned to M.M.W.'s custody on June 3, 2004, because she had become more compliant with services. Also, an evaluation by Dr. Alan Gordon concluded that the children were bonded to M.M.W. and that her parental rights should not be terminated because she "appear[ed] to be making strides toward reunification." The children's return was expressly made upon the condition that they have no contact with D.J.W., whose whereabouts were purportedly unknown to M.M.W. at that time. The pending guardianship complaint was dismissed.

M.M.W. had given birth to defendants' third child in February 2003. DYFS, however, did not learn of this child's existence until 2005 because M.M.W. told caseworkers that the child was her nephew.

In October 2005 defendants' landlord contacted DYFS and reported that there were three children in the home and he had seen both defendants intoxicated in front of the children; he also witnessed defendants fighting in the children's presence.

When caseworkers met with M.M.W., she continued to insist that the youngest child was her nephew; she also stated that D.J.W. worked in Pennsylvania but acknowledged that he stayed in the home once or twice a week. Later during that meeting, M.M.W. admitted that the youngest child was her son by D.J.W.

DYFS removed all three children, placing the two older children in one foster home, and the youngest in another. The older two children were eventually placed in separate therapeutic homes, and both moved through multiple foster homes because of behavior issues.

On October 21, 2005, DYFS filed its second abuse/neglect complaint; defendants were ordered to submit to psychological, psychiatric and substance abuse evaluations and to comply with recommended treatments. M.M.W. was permitted to have supervised visitation with the children.

The two older children were found to be medically fragile and suffering from a number of neurological and behavioral conditions that required immediate and ongoing attention. Assessments obtained at this time reported that "no medical care or follow-up on recommendations/therapies [were] provided" to the children since they had been reunified with M.M.W. in 2004.

In January 2006, the court found that M.M.W. had failed to protect the children and had violated prior court orders by permitting D.J.W. to have contact with the children. Therefore, the court approved a permanency plan calling for the termination of both defendants' parental rights; notwithstanding this order, the court required DYFS to continue to explore the possibility of reunification with M.M.W.

Dr. Puglia conducted an updated psychological evaluation of M.M.W. in February 2006. He reported that M.M.W. denied having any problems with alcohol, questioned the validity of the children's medical diagnoses and appeared "to be unaware of the nature and severity of [the children's] disabilities." Puglia had "serious problems with the credibility and reliability" of M.M.W.'s statements. He concluded that she did not suffer from any mental or emotional disabilities that would affect her ability to parent, but opined that notwithstanding her desire for reunification, "the strength of this commitment, her motivation to do so, and her ability to follow through with additional evaluations, treatments and monitoring . . . [were] highly questionable given her past behavioral patterns in this regard."

In April 2006, M.M.W. gave birth to her fourth child with D.J.W.; however, defendants also kept this child's birth unknown to DYFS until November 2006 when a ...

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