On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-188-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 12, 2011
Before Judges Parrillo, Grall and Alvarez.
Defendant E.C.H. appeals the October 18, 2010 Family Part judgment terminating her parental rights to I.H.R., born March 10, 2001, and A.H., born October 13, 2002, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15(c) and -15.1. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.*fn1
Care, custody, and supervision of I.H.R., A.H., and I.A.T.,*fn2 a third child not involved in this appeal, were initially granted to the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division), on September 17, 2007. The children were then placed in a Division-approved resource home. At an October 31, 2007 fact-finding hearing, the court found by clear and convincing evidence that E.C.H. abused or neglected the children as a result of her failure to provide them with adequate and proper supervision, and the children's out-of-home placement was continued. The Division also continued to pursue reunification efforts. In fact, on September 3, 2008, following a permanency hearing, the Division obtained an extension on their plan to reunify the family because, as the judge explained, E.C.H. should be granted additional time "to secure housing and stable income."
After a second permanency hearing conducted six months later, however, on February 26, 2009, the court entered an order approving the Division's plan to terminate parental rights because E.C.H. had not secured adequate housing or meaningfully engaged in therapy, and was "unable to protect [all three] children from their sexualized behaviors." Accordingly, the Division filed a complaint for guardianship. The trial was conducted on October 4, 12, and 18, 2010. E.C.H. did not present any evidence. The court rendered its decision terminating parental rights from the bench.
The Division presented the following relevant family history during the trial, beginning with a referral in August 2005, that the children had been left home alone. That referral was not substantiated.
On June 5, 2007, however, a Newark police officer, who went to E.C.H.'s home regarding an investigation unrelated to her or her family, discovered the children home without adult supervision. As a result, E.C.H. signed an agreement with the Division to ensure the children were properly supervised. On September 12, 2007, the Division received a second referral, this time from the East Orange Police Department, that the children had been found home alone when the authorities were attempting to locate a runaway juvenile. An emergency removal followed.
The children were placed in the home of E.C.H.'s family friends. A psychological evaluation of E.C.H. was ordered, and Dr. Leslie A. Trott recommended individual counseling for at least six months in order to assist E.C.H. in understanding the impact the stressors in her life were having on her ability to respond to her children's needs. E.C.H. was referred to a community mental health agency, Final Stop, to participate in parenting skills classes and individual counseling.
At the October 31, 2007 fact-finding hearing, the court determined by clear and convincing evidence that E.C.H. had abused or neglected her children by failing to provide them with adequate and proper supervision. She was ordered to participate in services, including parenting classes. E.C.H. did not complete the parenting program until March 12, 2008, nor did she comply at all with individual counseling or cooperate with home health aide services.
On February 12, 2008, the Division received referrals about I.H.R. and A.H. from psychologists, Dr. Scott Poltrock and Dr. Karen Smarz, as a result of A.H.'s allegation that E.C.H. had physically abused her, and coincidentally, I.H.R.'s allegation of physical abuse by her foster parents. Although the Division could not corroborate the children's allegations, the children were nonetheless provided additional mental health services.
In the opinion of I.H.R.'s treatment provider, it was possible that she had been the victim of inappropriate sexual behavior and physical abuse. She was referred to group therapy, and E.C.H. was again referred to family therapy in order to expedite a reunification plan.
In April 2008, when E.C.H. commenced counseling, she acknowledged having been laid off from her partial employment at the postal service three months earlier, that she was not receiving unemployment benefits, and that she had been denied welfare and temporary rental assistance. The following month, Final Stop issued a report stating that E.C.H. was putting a considerable amount of effort into completing her court-ordered tasks and had again secured full-time employment. Unfortunately, E.C.H. fell behind in her rent, and by August 2008 was homeless.
On September 26, 2008, E.C.H. attended a second psychological evaluation with Dr. Denise M. Williams-Johnson. She had concerns regarding E.C.H.'s truthfulness and minimization of responsibility. Dr. Williams-Johnson concluded that E.C.H. had not learned from her experiences and had difficulty empathizing with her children. Based on information provided by E.C.H., she was also concerned that E.C.H. might have brain cancer which was affecting her cognitive functioning and recommended that E.C.H. submit to a neuropsychological evaluation. E.C.H. later admitted that she had overstated her health issues to Dr. Williams-Johnson.
During the months that followed, E.C.H. continued to intermittently participate in counseling, with mixed results. She represented to the court that she had obtained employment, but only produced one pay stub.
In the interim, the children had been removed from the friends' home and placed with a licensed resource provider. On September 27, 2008, the Division was notified by the foster family that I.H.R. had been found on top of her foster brother, engaging in sexual behavior. When asked about the incident, ...