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Division of Youth and Family Services v. S.S

April 14, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Mercer County, Docket No. FG-11-56-09.

Per curiam.



Argued: March 30, 2011

Before Judges Axelrad, Lihotz, and J. N. Harris.

S.S. appeals from a June 1, 2010 judgment of the Family Part terminating her parental rights to her then three-year-old son, S.R.S.B., and awarding guardianship to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) for the purposes of effectuating the child's adoption.*fn1 On appeal, S.S. argues DYFS did not prove by clear and convincing evidence the four statutory prongs required to establish that her son's best interests require severance of her parental ties. She additionally argues it was inappropriate for DYFS to have retained the child in his foster placement rather than considering Y.B., his paternal aunt, as a viable placement option. We note that the Law Guardian supports termination of S.S.'s parental rights to S.R.S.B.

After considering the record and briefs in light of the applicable law, we are satisfied the trial judge's findings and conclusions are firmly supported by substantial, credible evidence in the record as a whole. See, e.g., N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.R.G., 361 N.J. Super. 46, 78 (App. Div. 2003), aff'd in part, modified in part and remanded, 179 N.J. 264 (2004), certif. denied, 186 N.J. 603 (2006). We affirm.


We need not describe in detail the many facts the trial court considered in its determination. We instead provide a brief summary of the cogent facts we considered in concluding the judge's findings were well-supported by the record.

The following testimony and evidence were presented during the four-day trial commencing in January 2010 and concluding in May 2010. DYFS presented the factual testimony of three employees, Nicole Ortiz, an investigator with the Institutional Abuse Investigations Unit, Anne Marie Sciarotta, a permanency worker, and Lauren Gauntt, an adoption caseworker. The agency also presented the expert testimony of Amy Becker-Mattes, Ph.D., who performed a psychological evaluation of S.S. and a bonding evaluation of S.R.S.B. with his foster parents. S.S. testified on her own behalf and presented no expert testimony.

Before S.S. gave birth to S.R.S.B. on June 18, 2007, she had given birth to five other children, none of whom remained in her care. S.S. gave birth to her first child when she was fourteen years of age but DYFS was not involved because she voluntarily surrendered her parental rights. S.S. has been known to DYFS since February 1996, when she gave birth to her second child, a daughter, who tested positive for cocaine. At the time of trial, the child resided with her maternal grandmother under a kinship legal guardianship. S.S.'s parental rights to her three other children were involuntarily terminated as a result of petitions filed by DYFS in 2003 and 2004. One of those children tested positive for cocaine at birth.*fn2

DYFS again became involved with S.S. when it received a referral about S.R.S.B.'s birth and learned S.S. admitted to smoking a joint laced with cocaine one month prior to the delivery. DYFS performed an emergency removal and placed S.R.S.B. with his maternal grandmother, but returned the infant to S.S. on July 11, 2007, after the child tested negative for drugs at birth. On August 15, 2007, the court issued an order in the recently-filed abuse and neglect case directing S.R.S.B. to remain under the care and supervision of DYFS.

On November 2, 2007, Dr. Allan Lee performed a psychological evaluation of S.S. and diagnosed her with Personality Disorder not-otherwise-specified, with anti-social narcissistic and paranoid traits. Noting S.S.'s parenting stressors and the fact she had struggled to sustain a relationship with her six children, as well as her history of poor decision-making, Dr. Lee opined that S.S. presents with a heightened propensity for substance abuse relapse, criminal recidivism, and generally irresponsible functioning and poor parenting. Some of her knowledge about parenting and childrearing appears to be limited, and her emotional skills and maladaptive personality traits further compromise her ability to effectively and consistently carry out effective parenting.

Dr. Lee expressed concerns with S.S. being an independent caregiver to any minor child and recommended supervised visitation.

S.S. was sporadic or non-compliant with substance abuse treatment and parenting classes. On January 8, 2008, during a routine drug test, S.S. tested positive for cocaine. As a result of the positive test and non-compliance with services, DYFS removed S.R.S.B. from his mother's care on January 11, 2008, and placed him in his current foster home. He was six months old at the time. On January 15, 2008, DYFS filed an amended verified complaint in the abuse and neglect case seeking custody of S.R.S.B.

In the following months, S.S. had weekly supervised visits with her son at the DYFS office or elsewhere in the community. However, though successfully completing the Strengthening Families program, she failed to complete the Brighter Day Behavioral Health program and was terminated from substance abuse treatment based on her sporadic or lack of attendance and refusal to provide urine samples as part of her routine drug screening. On June 13, 2008, pursuant to an application by the Law Guardian, the court relieved DYFS of its responsibility to make reasonable efforts to provide services to S.S.

On October 9, 2008, the court approved DYFS' permanency plan that called for termination of mother's parental rights followed by adoption by the foster parents. The permanency order stated that S.S. "has yet to remediate the substance abuse issues which led to the removal of the child for she is still testing positive for drugs. The experts in this case agree that it would be a risk of harm to the child to be reunited with [S.S.]." The order further noted that S.S. "has not taken advantage of the services offered by the Division to become ...

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