On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Warren County, No. FG-21-103-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 16, 2010
Before Judges Wefing, Payne and Koblitz.
L.F. is the mother of three children--Ann, now seventeen years old; Tom, now sixteen; and Susan, now twelve.*fn1 She appeals from a trial court judgment terminating her parental rights with respect to these children. The children's father, P.F., died in a motor vehicle accident prior to the filing by the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services ("DYFS") of its guardianship complaint. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.
The first referrals to DYFS with respect to these children occurred in May 1997, alleging that L.F. often left the children unsupervised, hit Ann and Tom with a belt and pulled their hair and ears. L.F. attributed the referrals to neighbors with whom she was having trouble, and DYFS was unable to find any substantiation. L.F.'s next contact with DYFS was five years later, in May 2002, when it received a referral that L.F. left the children alone each day for twenty minutes when she drove her husband to work. L.F. refused to admit the caseworker to the house; eventually, she permitted the children to speak to the worker outside. Tom, who was then seven, admitted that he would care for three-year-old Susan when his parents were gone. Susan suffered from "global developmental delays," and thus caring for her entailed more than might otherwise be involved. She has been diagnosed as profoundly retarded, could not speak and needed help eating. The caseworker tried to speak to defendant to give her guidelines for supervising children; defendant replied that she did not need them because she got her "guidelines from Jesus."
Defendant's next involvement with DYFS was in 2005; DYFS received a series of referrals alleging abuse of the children, including beatings; that Ann was demonstrating sexualized behavior with other children; and that L.F. would lock the children out of the house and refuse them food unless they begged God for forgiveness. L.F. repeatedly refused to permit a DYFS caseworker to enter the home. When a DYFS worker interviewed Ann and Tom at school, L.F. screamed at the DYFS worker for doing so.
In October 2005, DYFS filed a complaint under Title 9. The trial court ordered the parents to permit DYFS to have access to the home and to cooperate with DYFS in its investigation. In November, Tom threatened to kill the school principal; when L.F. learned of this threat, she responded by going to the school and threatening to get a gun to shoot her neighbors. L.F. had to be taken in handcuffs to a crisis center for evaluation. The school refused to permit Tom to return until he received a psychological evaluation. L.F. refused to comply with this request and withdrew both children from school and home-schooled them for several months.
In January 2006, the police went to L.F.'s home, having received a report that Ann was out of control. Defendant was holding her to restrain her physically and told the officers that Ann's doctor had told her to give Ann one of defendant's Xanax tablets so she gave the girl two. Ann was taken to the hospital where her blood tested positive for Xanax. Ann's doctor denied speaking to defendant or telling her to give the child Xanax. Both L.F. and her husband were arrested in connection with this incident, and L.F. was charged with endangering the welfare of a child, distribution of a controlled dangerous substance and child abuse and neglect. She eventually entered a negotiated plea of guilty to the latter offense, a fourth-degree crime, and was placed on probation for three years.
L.F. remained in custody for almost two months after her arrest, and DYFS obtained an order granting it temporary custody of the children. The children were placed in foster homes, Ann and Tom in one home, Susan in another. When the DYFS caseworker went to the home to retrieve the children for placement, she found it in a filthy condition, with animal feces on the stairs. The children's condition was similarly deplorable.
Defendant underwent psychiatric evaluations in May and August 2006. She was diagnosed with adjustment disorder with anxious and depressed mood and personality disorder with paranoid and obsessive features. Both Ann and Tom received psychological evaluations in June 2006; Ann was thirteen, Tom eleven. Both were diagnosed with adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood and began to receive individual counseling.
DYFS's goal at this time was to reunify the family, and Susan was returned to L.F.'s care in September 2006. Defendant was provided with assistance through Family Preservation Services to help with the care of Susan. Initially, her care was appropriate. Ann and Tom returned home in February 2007. A week after their return, their pediatrician called DYFS to say that L.F. was overwhelmed. She refused to follow through with the counseling schedule that had been set up for the family; DYFS adjusted the schedule in an attempt to meet her complaints about the time constraints the original schedule imposed. As time went on, however, she continued to reduce the counseling sessions and did not follow up on DYFS's instruction to obtain individual therapy for Tom.
L.F.'s behavior continued to deteriorate. She made unsupported allegations against the children's paternal grandparents, contending they were using a global positioning system to make her computer crash. Family Preservation Services terminated defendant due to her refusal to participate in the program. The worker assigned to L.F. described her as becoming "increasingly paranoid and vengeful toward service providers and DYFS."
The care she provided to Susan also deteriorated. In May 2007, workers at Susan's school reported that she often arrived in a dirty and disheveled condition, and often with a sippy cup containing spoiled milk.
Defendant's failure to comply with DYFS's recommendations was a violation of the terms of her probation, and she was again incarcerated. In May 2007, DYFS obtained another order permitting it to again remove the children from her custody. The DYFS worker who went to L.F.'s home to collect the children's belongings again found it in deplorable condition, smelling of cat urine and with mold growing in the kitchen. Clothes were strewn throughout the house, and there were no sheets on Tom's bed.
All three children went to the same foster home in which Ann and Tom had lived previously. Tom told his foster mother that L.F. would often come home very late at night, intoxicated, and that she would leave Susan in Ann's care on weekends, when she went out to meet men. Ann was fourteen at the time and had a boyfriend who was eighteen. L.F. raised no objections and permitted him to sleep over.
Initially, after the removal of May 2007, DYFS arranged for L.F. to visit with the children, but this visitation was eventually terminated at their insistence. A visit in September had to be stopped when it degenerated into fighting. A visit was scheduled the following week, and the children told the caseworker they did not want any more visits. That visit, already scheduled, proceeded but came to an abrupt end; the DYFS caseworker wanted to see a piece of paper that L.F. was demanding the children sign. Defendant picked up a chair and threw it down the hall and yelled at Ann, "Ok-I'm not your mother. ...