On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-130-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Wefing, Payne, and Hayden.
Defendants M.H. and J.L.R., IV (J.R.) each appeal from the trial court judgment terminating their parental rights to their son J.L.R., V (J.L.R. or the child) and awarding guardianship to the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division). We have consolidated their appeals. After reviewing the record presented on appeal, we affirm.
M.H. and J.R. are the parents of J.L.R., born March 23, 2007. Shortly before the child's birth, the parents purchased a house and began living together. M.H., who has a master's degree, worked for the Division as an investigator until she was fired following the removal of J.L.R. from her custody.
In March 2008, J.R. reported receiving threatening phone calls and emails from business associates, whom he had accused of fraud. On March 23, 2008, J.R. and M.H. filed a complaint with the local police stating that their home and car had been bugged. They also complained to the FBI and the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.
On March 27, 2008, an event occurred on the Walt Whitman Bridge that resulted in the arrest of both parents and the involuntary removal of the child by the Division. M.H. testified that J.R., after receiving a call that afternoon, told her that they had to leave the house immediately because "they're going to come for us." J.R. drove toward Philadelphia with the child and M.H. in the car.
Before they had reached the Walt Whitman Bridge, a patrolman attempted to pull over defendants' car because J.R. was speeding and had on his emergency lights. M.H. initially told J.R. to pull over, but J.R. responded that the police officer was escorting them to Philadelphia.
After driving onto the bridge, J.R. stopped and exited the car, holding the child in one arm and a baseball bat in the other. J.R. swung the bat at the passing traffic, causing slight damage to a few vehicles. M.H. reported that she flagged down a passing car and asked the driver to call the police.
Believing there was a hostage situation, the police stopped traffic in both directions. Traffic between New Jersey and Philadelphia was almost completely halted for over three hours. Close to one hundred officers from several jurisdictions were involved in the incident.
Detective Leone, a hostage negotiator with the State Police who was called to the scene, testified about the incident. According to Detective Leone, after police had secured the scene, they discovered that M.H. was not a hostage. M.H., plainly siding with J.R., yelled at him not to trust the police and warned that they would trick him. Detective Leone stated that every time J.R. began to calm down and speak rationally, M.H. interjected and yelled at him not to believe the officer. Detective Leone testified that M.H. narrated the movements of the police officers and SWAT teams to J.R. According to Detective Leone, when he began the negotiations, the child was in the front seat with M.H., where he remained for most of this time.
J.R. told the police that the car was rigged with explosives and that he would detonate them if anyone approached. He surrendered a gun to the police that turned out to be a plastic replica. He also stated that a man who was killed in Philadelphia the day before was the only person who could have helped him. He stated to the negotiator that he was being followed and that his home and car were bugged. He wanted the police to stop those things. According to the detective, M.H. concurred with those statements and demands.
After several hours of negotiations, J.R. and M.H. agreed to turn themselves in if the police guaranteed their safety and that the child would be taken to V.H., his maternal grandmother. Subsequently, the Division made an emergency removal, assumed custody of the child, and placed him with V.H., where he has remained to date.
At the end of this incident, both M.H. and J.R. were taken into police custody.*fn1 While at the police station, M.H. requested to go to a crisis mental health facility. The next day M.H. was admitted to Kennedy Memorial Hospital and diagnosed with shared psychotic disorder and acute stress disorder. The hospital records showed that she tested positive for marijuana. M.H. was discharged from the hospital on April 2, 2008.
On March 28, 2008, the day after the bridge incident, J.R. was admitted to Ann Klein Forensic Center. There, a psychiatrist determined that he did not meet the criteria for involuntary commitment, but that he needed further evaluation and stabilization. He was discharged on April 28, 2008.
On May 9, 2008, after being admitted to a hospital for threatening his neighbors with pruning shears, J.R. was diagnosed as psychotic. On May 14, 2008, he was transferred to Camden County Health Services Center for long-term treatment and given anti-psychotic medication. After two weeks the Center discharged J.R. with the recommendation that he continue to take medication and attend out-patient treatment.
Beginning in April 2008, the Division set up supervised visitation between M.H. and the child for two hours a week. J.R. was not allowed to have contact with the child due to his bail restrictions. In May 2008, the Division scheduled psychiatric evaluations for both parents. Neither M.H. nor J.R. attended their scheduled evaluations.
At the request of the Division, the Center for Family Services (the Center) assessed both J.R. and M.H. on August 26, 2008, for services. Both were found to have abused marijuana. The Center referred M.H. to a substance abuse treatment program, where she completed sixteen weeks of treatment. The Center recommended outpatient treatment for J.R. and scheduled him for intake but he failed to attend or participate in services. In December 2008, the Center terminated J.R. for non-compliance with services.
Dr. Edward Baruch, a psychiatrist, evaluated M.H. and J.R. for the Division in September 2008. Dr. Baruch concluded that J.R. suffered from mental illness and needed treatment. He also concluded that, although M.H. needed therapy, the child would be safe with her at the time. He recommended that she should not be awarded custody or unsupervised visitation while living with J.R. until he was fully treated. J.R. did not participate in the recommended treatment plan.
In November 2008, M.H. began individual therapy with Dr. Kristen Cirelli, a psychologist. The sessions lasted until June 16, 2009, when M.H. ended them. During treatment Dr. Cirelli reported several times to the Division that M.H. was making progress and would be able to parent appropriately.
From December 2008 through February 2009, M.H. had weekly visitation with the child at the Robin's Nest without incident. Beginning in March 2009, M.H. had in-home visitation with the child as part ...