On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-241-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 19, 2011
Before Judges Cuff, Lihotz, and Waugh.
Defendants K.A.J. (Karen)*fn1 and J.R.B. (James) appeal from judgments of the Family Part terminating their parental rights to their two children: T.J.B. (Tyler), who was born in February 2004; and J.N.B. (Jane), who was born in June 2006. We affirm as to both parents.
We discern the following facts and procedural history from the record on appeal.
Karen, age thirty, and James, age fifty-three, met in the mid-1990s, and began living together in 2003.*fn2 In addition to Tyler and Jane, Karen had three other children with James: a daughter, born in March 2005, who is deceased; a daughter born in October 2007, who is in the custody of Pennsylvania's children's services agency; and a daughter, born in March 2009, who is in the custody of New York's Office of Children and Family Services (CFS).
In 2005, Karen and James were living with Tyler and his now deceased sister in a one-bedroom basement apartment in Queens, New York. At some point prior to August 4, 2005, Karen sought treatment from Creedmore Psychiatric Center because she was experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations. On August 4, CFS received a telephone referral from a sergeant in the New York City Police Department. The sergeant reported that he had gone to defendants' home with two psychiatrists from Creedmore to complete a mental health assessment of Karen. The sergeant described the condition of the home as "deplorable," because it was dirty, cluttered, and there was exposed wiring in the ceiling.
Karen was found to be actively psychotic, and was taken to Queens Hospital Center for a psychiatric evaluation. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoid type, and hospitalized. The children were also taken to the hospital for medical evaluations. The daughter had a diaper rash, and Tyler had scabies, likely caused by insect bites. The children were given medicine for their conditions and placed in a respite home because Karen's sister, who had initiated the police contact, was unable to care for them.
CFS contacted James, who had not been home at the time the police and psychiatrists visited the home. James denied that Karen had any serious mental health issues. However, he agreed to have the children placed in a respite home while he made arrangements for them to live with other relatives.
CFS opened a file on the family, investigated the initial referral, and assessed the home of Karen's sister with the goal of placing the children there. On August 15, the children were released to James, who had moved in with Karen's sister. Upon Karen's subsequent release from the hospital, she also moved in with her sister. However, the caseworker stressed that Karen could not be left alone with the children.
CFS monitored the family and provided services. James continued to deny that Karen was mentally ill or that she needed medication. He was uncooperative with CFS's unannounced visit to the home on August 30.
In late September, the family moved to New Jersey without notifying CFS authorities and without leaving any contact information. James eventually advised the CFS caseworker that they had moved to Newark.
The CFS caseworker contacted the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) on October 3. She told DYFS about the family's move to New Jersey and that the parents had been non-compliant with supervision. She requested that DYFS visit the family and open a case for supervision. DYFS made several attempts to visit defendants' apartment, but was not able to meet with the family until October 25.
The DYFS caseworker determined that the children were safe in the home, and developed a case plan with the parents. DYFS provided them with homemaker services, offered parenting skills training, and sought welfare and healthcare for Karen and the children. The DYFS caseworker took Karen's psychiatric condition into account in developing the case plan, which provided that James was not to leave the children alone with her.
The caseworker concluded that James did not understand the seriousness of Karen's condition. He was reluctant to divulge financial information necessary to obtain certain services, and was hesitant to accept assistance, including advice from the homemaker.
On January 5, 2006, Karen went to Newark Beth Israel Hospital for a prenatal examination. She reported that she was homeless because James would not allow her to return to their home. She also reported that, at the time, she had no children living with her or in her care. The hospital made a referral to DYFS.
On January 16, the homemaker found the children home alone with Karen. She characterized the apartment as "in worse shape than before." When questioned at trial about the incident, James responded that "as far as I can recall, I never left her alone."
In a January 20 letter to DYFS, a psychologist and psychiatrist from Creedmore stressed the importance of Karen continuing to receive outpatient psychiatric services. They noted her history of violence, her history of visual and auditory hallucinations, including violent thoughts and images regarding her children, and her history of parasuicidal acts and suicidal gestures. They expressed concern that those psychiatric symptoms would re-emerge because she was no longer taking her medications due to her pregnancy.
On March 17, the caseworker made a home visit, but was unable to locate the family. Neighbors stated that they had moved back to New York. They had not notified DYFS of the move, nor had they provided any forwarding information. On March 22, DYFS initiated a search for the family.
On April 6, DYFS was advised by the New York City Police that Karen and James's infant daughter had died at Queens Central Hospital. The cause of death was respiratory failure resulting from dehydration. The investigation revealed that James had brought the daughter to the hospital in New York, leaving Karen alone in Newark with Tyler.*fn3 DYFS substantiated a claim of medical neglect.
Karen was taken to Queens for questioning, and Tyler was temporarily placed in a New York shelter. He was subsequently moved to a foster home in New Jersey. Medical screenings found him to be developmentally delayed and in only the tenth percentile for weight.
By the time of trial, in February 2010, Tyler remained in foster care. Tyler had had a total of five foster home placements: two in New York, two in New Jersey, and a final one in Pennsylvania. He required special education and therapy for his behavior issues. Nevertheless, the record reflects that he is a friendly, resilient child, who is doing well in his most recent placement.
On April 22, 2006, James contacted DYFS and reported that he could not find Karen. On July 9, the East Orange Police notified DYFS that Karen and Jane, who was a newborn at the time, had been removed from a friend's residence. The friend had given shelter to Karen and the baby when Karen was either kicked out or voluntarily left the apartment she shared with James. Neither Karen nor James had reported Jane's birth to DYFS.
The police transported Karen and Jane to University Hospital in Newark. DYFS then placed Jane in a foster home pursuant to an emergent order of removal. Jane was moved to another foster home when she was about five months old. She was still in that home at the time of trial. Her foster mother expressed an interest in adoption. Jane appears to have no significant health issues.
After the children's removals, DYFS provided the family with services intended to facilitate reunification. They included parent/child and sibling visitation, parenting skills classes, psychological and psychiatric evaluations to assess the parents' needs, outpatient mental health services for the parents, medical evaluations and interventions for the children, transportation to evaluations and visitation, bus cards, and the consideration of relative resources as placements for the children.
Karen and James complied with their first set of psychological and psychiatric evaluations in 2006. They had completed parenting skills classes by early 2007. However, Karen was unavailable for services for long periods of time due to frequent hospitalizations.
In April 2007, DYFS learned that Karen had been seen at University Hospital in Newark for her mental illness. At that time, she was sixteen weeks pregnant with her fourth child. She reported that she was moving to Allentown, Pennsylvania with James. She gave birth to the child in Pennsylvania in October 2007. By November 2007, she was residing at a shelter in Harrisburg.
Karen was hospitalized at Queens Medical Center in Brooklyn between February and April 2008. She was hospitalized at Bellevue Hospital in New York between October 2008 and April 2009. She was pregnant with her fifth child at that time. From Bellevue, she was transferred to Rockland Psychiatric Center, where she remained until August 2009. According to the DYFS caseworker, Karen was briefly hospitalized in East Orange General Hospital in the later part of 2009.
By December 8, 2009, Karen's whereabouts were again unknown. She did not appear for a court conference that day. She also did not appear at a pretrial conference on February 2, 2010, or a case management conference on February 4. She did not appear for trial. Neither DYFS nor Karen's attorney had contact with her during the month prior to the trial. Her attorney only knew that she might be living in a shelter.
The record reflects that James has led a generally transient and unstable life. At trial, he testified that he had been working through a temporary agency since September 2009. However, DYFS checked his employment status with the agency, which had no record of current employment. In January 2010, DYFS also requested that James provide proof of his employment, but he did not comply. The only documentary proof of James's employment was from June 2009 and November 2009.
James's living situation was also unstable. In April 2007, he moved to Allentown with Karen. Between approximately the summer or early fall of 2007 and February 2008, he was incarcerated in the Bergen County jail. After his incarceration, he began living with his new girlfriend in East Orange. He continued to live with her through September 2008.
From September 2008 to May 2009, he was incarcerated in New York State for driving with a suspended driver's license.
During that period of incarceration, he missed several court hearings, although he had regularly attended earlier court hearings.
James testified at trial that he lived with his sister in Brooklyn from May to September 2009. However, in July 2009, he told the caseworker that he was living with his girlfriend in Highland Park. He suggested the girlfriend as someone who might provide a home for his children.
During a psychological evaluation conducted in September 2009, James told Mark Singer, Ed.D., a psychologist, that his then current girlfriend was willing to marry him and care for his children and that the two were "planning on having a future together."
At trial, James testified that he had been residing with another female friend in Orange since September 2009. DYFS verified that address as his then current home.
According to the caseworker, Karen and James visited the children "sporadically." They missed some scheduled visits, and were late for others. However, make-up visits were provided when necessary. When they were not institutionalized, their attendance tended to be fairly regular.
Both parents generally interacted appropriately with the children during the visitations. James was characterized as having a particularly good relationship with Tyler. His visits with Jane were sometimes awkward. For example, during visits held on May 27, July 22, August 15, August 29, September 2, September 12, and September 23, 2008, Jane rejected James's attempts to interact with her. He chose to leave the September 12 visit rather than continue the visit with Tyler only. On occasions in September and October 2009, Jane referred to her ...