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New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. L.W

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


January 14, 2011

NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
L.W., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF I.B., A MINOR.
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
P.H., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF M.J.M.S.H., A MINOR.
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
L.W., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF M.J.M.S.H., A MINOR.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Passaic County, Docket Nos. FG-16-79-08 and FG-16-51-09.

Per curiam.

RECORD IMPOUNDED

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted: January 5, 2011 - Decided: Before Judges Fisher, Sapp-Peterson and Fasciale.

These consolidated appeals concern two guardianship matters that were resolved in a single trial. In one action, defendant L.W. appeals the termination of her parental rights to I.B, who was born on April 22, 2006.*fn1 In the other action, L.W. and defendant P.H. appeal the termination of their parental rights to M.J.M.S.H, who was born on July 1, 2007. L.W. and P.H. contend that the evidence was insufficient to warrant termination. We disagree and affirm.

When I.B. was born two months prematurely, the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) received a referral from a social worker at the hospital that L.W. was "behaving oddly." It was reported that L.W. threatened the nurses and gagged I.B. while feeding her with a bottle. The Division removed I.B. from L.W.'s care a few weeks after her birth because I.B.'s life was in imminent danger. I.B. was placed initially in a specialized foster family because she was classified as medically fragile. She was later declassified and placed with her paternal aunt, D.B., where she remains today.

D.B. is interested in adopting I.B. The judge ordered L.W. to undergo mental health evaluations and complete a parenting skills program, and permitted L.W. supervised visitation one hour a week.

At the fact-finding proceeding four months later, L.W. stipulated that "her mental health issues at the time of the birth of [I.B.] made it impossible to place [I.B.] in her care at that time." The judge required L.W. to receive psychiatric treatment, ordered continued attendance at parenting skills classes, and increased supervised visitation to two hours a week.

Numerous mental health professionals evaluated L.W. and diagnosed her with a paranoid and schizoid personality disorder, adjustment disorder, narcissism, and borderline intelligence.

L.W. also has a history of taking medication sporadically. The Division removed M.J.M.S.H. from his mother, L.W., within two days of his birth. His father, P.H., was incarcerated on drug charges.*fn2 L.W. continued to suffer from mental health issues. The judge concluded that the removal was warranted to avoid risk to M.J.M.S.H.'s life, and found that L.W. "may be psychiatrically incapable of caring for [M.J.M.S.H.]." The judge permitted L.W. supervised visitation with M.J.M.S.H. twice a week. When M.J.M.S.H. was four years old he was placed with his current caretaker who wants to adopt him.

The court conducted a fact-finding hearing concerning M.J.M.S.H.The judge found that L.W. posed a risk to her son "based on her mental health issues," and that P.H. "was unavailable to plan for his child due to his incarceration."

The guardianship actions for I.B. and M.J.M.S.H. were commenced in 2008 and 2009 respectively. The six-day trial occurred on nonconsecutive dates between June 2009 and November 2009. In rendering his decision, the trial judge employed the four-prong test contained in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a), which requires that the Division prove by clear and convincing evidence that:

(1) The child's safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship;

(2) The parent is unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing the child or is unable or unwilling to provide a safe and stable home for the child and the delay of permanent placement will add to the harm . . . .;

(3) The [D]ivision has made reasonable efforts to provide services to help the parent correct the circumstances which led to the child's placement outside the home and the court has considered alternatives to termination of parental rights; and

(4) Termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good.

See also N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 604-10 (1986). Although these four prongs "must be evaluated separately as to each child," New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. A.R., 405 N.J. Super. 418, 443 (App. Div. 2009) (citing N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 284-85 (2007)), the prongs are not independent of one another. Rather, they overlap to form a unified whole. In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 348 (1999).

The judge determined that the first prong was met by clear and convincing evidence. He found that I.B. and M.J.M.S.H. "will be at great risk of serious, enduring harm if they are placed in the custody of [L.W.] because of her psychological and psychiatric disabilities." The judge explained that three psychologists testified that L.W. does not have the capacity to safely parent the children and that her mental health issues were not remediable "within the foreseeable future (if at all)."

The judge also found that M.J.M.S.H. would "be at great risk of serious and enduring harm if he is placed in the custody of [P.H.]." P.H. made no meaningful attempts to provide for his son, had no credible plan to care for him, and has led a lifestyle involving crime.*fn3

The judge found the second prong was met because L.W. and P.H. were unable to eliminate the harm and provide a safe and stable home, and that the delay of permanent placement would cause serious and enduring harm to the children. The judge cited testimony from three different doctors that L.W.'s personality disorder was untreatable because she became an isolationist, suspicious and paranoid of those trying to help her. The judge noted that L.W.'s borderline intellectual capacity "would significantly diminish her parenting capacity because of the resultant limitation on the ability to learn adequate parenting skills."

The judge determined that P.H.'s testimony, that "he does not have a problem with drugs," was not credible. The court found P.H. was likely to involve himself "in the drug culture." The judge determined correctly that P.H. would be unable to assume custody for M.J.M.S.H. As for the third prong, the judge correctly found that the Division made reasonable efforts to provide services to help L.W. correct the circumstances that led to the placement of both children. The services included numerous psychiatric and psychological evaluations, visitation, case planning, family intervention services including parenting skills classes, counseling, medication and medication monitoring. P.H. was unavailable to receive any services because of his incarceration.

In finding the fourth prong was also met, the judge recognized -- relying on bonding evaluations -- that both children were securely attached to their current caretakers and that termination of parental rights would not do more harm than good. The children's compelling need for permanency, see, e.g., New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. C.S., 367 N.J. Super. 76, 111 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 180 N.J. 456 (2004), supported the conclusion required by the fourth prong.

Our standard of review is limited. In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002). Because a judge's findings "are considered binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence," Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Insurance Co. of America, 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974), we only disturb factual findings when they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with competent, relevant, and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. G.L., 191 N.J. 596, 605 (2007); Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 412 (1998).

For these reasons and others more fully described by Judge Sabbath in his written decision of February 4, 2010, with which we substantially agree, we affirm the judgments under review.


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