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Division of Youth and Family Services v. N.O

November 2, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FG-15-69-08.

Per curiam.



Submitted: September 21, 2011

Before Judges Axelrad, Sapp-Peterson and Ostrer.

N.O. appeals from an April 22, 2010 judgment of the Family Part terminating her parental rights to her daughter R.C.C., then five-and-one-half years old, and awarding guardianship to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) for the purposes of effectuating the child's adoption.*fn1 On appeal, N.O. argues that DYFS did not prove by clear and convincing evidence the four statutory prongs required to establish that her daughter's best interests require severance of her parental ties. We note the Law Guardian supports termination of N.O.'s parental ties to R.C.C.

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 multi-day trial that commenced before Judge James M. Blaney in 2009 and continued, on non-consecutive days, until its conclusion in March 2010. DYFS presented the factual testimony of its caseworker, Mary Turash, Adolescent Unit employee, Stacey Weigandt, and Adoption Unit employee, Lisa Quackenbush, as well as R.C.C.'s paternal grandmother F.C. DYFS also presented the expert testimony of Chester Sigafoos, Ph.D., who performed a psychological evaluation of N.O. and her four sons, and Alan J. Lee, Psy.D., who performed a psychological evaluation of N.O. and conducted bonding evaluations of R.C.C. with both N.O. and with her current caregivers. DYFS additionally presented the testimony of Vicki Rahenkamp, a licensed clinical professional counselor for Children's Home Society of New Jersey, who worked with R.C.C. in her foster home. The Law Guardian presented the factual testimony of R.C.C.'s foster mother C.C., and the expert testimony of William Coffey, Psy.D., who also performed a psychological evaluation of N.O. and bonding evaluations of R.C.C. with both N.O. and with her caregivers.

N.O. testified on her own behalf. She also presented the factual testimony of Edward Zupkus, a therapist at Family Transition Support Services, and the expert testimony of Roger T. Raftery, Ph.D., who performed a psychological evaluation of N.O. and a bonding evaluation of R.C.C. with N.O.

N.O., who was in her mid-forties at the time of trial, reported a history of tragic events pre-dating her involvement with DYFS, not all of which could be corroborated by the evaluators or the agency. N.O. reported that she had been seriously injured in a car accident as a teenager and had subsequent car accidents that caused her to have neck and back problems. She reported to Dr. Lee that between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, she gave birth to five children, including one set of twins, who were adopted by relatives in Ireland, and claimed all of the children were "products of rape."

N.O. then gave birth to four sons, J.O. in 1990, D.O. in 1992, C.O. in 1993, and T.C. in 1999. R.C.C. was born on November 16, 2004.

DYFS had been involved with N.O. and her children since September 1995. On March 9, 2004, N.O.'s four minor sons were removed from her care following a DYFS complaint and order to show cause setting forth concerns that N.O. was not treating her own mental health needs, was failing to adequately supervise her children, and was not meeting the special needs of her children. In particular, the complaint noted that thirteen-year-old J.O. was suicidal and homicidal and had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, eleven-year-old D.O. reported that J.O. had molested him and his ten-year-old brother, and N.O. had tested positive for opiates and failed to comply with psychological and substance abuse evaluations. DYFS was granted temporary custody of the four children. On November 18, 2004, two days after R.C.C.'s birth, DYFS amended its complaint to include R.C.C., and DYFS was granted temporary custody of the infant that day.

On April 28, 2005, Judge Barbara A. Villano entered findings after reviewing the family history and mental health evaluations of the family that had been completed after the children's removal from N.O.'s care. She questioned the veracity of many of the historical events reported by N.O., cited her observations of N.O.'s mental instability when she was in court, found it disturbing that N.O. described the disclosed sexual molestation between J.O. and D.O. as "mere curiosity," and concluded that N.O. possessed little, if any, protective instincts over her children, perhaps because of her own traumatic childhood experiences. Nevertheless, the court concluded that DYFS had failed to provide any expert evidence to validate its position that N.O. presented a risk to her children and thus reluctantly reunified the family. J.O., however, remained in a residential treatment facility.

DYFS engaged Family Preservation Services (FPS) to assist in the reunification. FPS, however, terminated its services on June 27, 2006, because the family was not benefiting from the program, and N.O. was using extremes in disciplining the children despite her knowledge of proper parenting skills and discipline. DYFS also retained Dr. Raftery to provide sexual abuse counseling for C.O. and D.O., ensured that Ocean Mental Health Services provided the family with medication monitoring, and arranged for substance abuse evaluations for both N.O. and R.C. DYFS additionally provided N.O. with homemaker services, childcare resources for R.C.C., websites for mental health support services, Harbor House Outreach Services, and other family support groups.

On May 31, 2006, DYFS responded to a referral, which turned out to be unfounded, but which resulted in the caseworker's observing that the boys were always fighting and the home environment was chaotic. N.O. agreed to send R.C.C. to F.C., the paternal grandmother's house, where she stayed for about a month. F.C. testified at trial that she feared for R.C.C.'s safety in N.O.'s home because the boys were out of control, hit each other, and punched holes in the walls. She further testified that N.O. was only able to control the boys' behavior to a point and thus confined R.C.C. to a bedroom with a gate across the doorway. According to F.C., N.O. told her she did this because she was afraid of the boys hurting their sister.

By December 2006, DYFS had serious concerns about N.O.'s ability to properly care for her children. N.O. had displayed erratic behavior, such as mood changes, delusions, and made statements such as she had twenty-seven pregnancies and was born with cervical cancer. She had also left a morphine patch on the table that could have easily been reached by R.C.C. In addition, N.O. continually refused to take R.C.C. to daycare, ...

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