On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FN-09-445-09D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Telephonically Argued November 1, 2011
Before Judges Parrillo, Grall and Alvarez.
Appellant A.M. appeals from an August 14, 2009 order of the Family Part, finding that he sexually abused his then twelve-year old step-daughter, L.T. We affirm.
On March 9, 2009, the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) commenced its investigation of a report from L.T.'s school guidance counselor concerning possible physical and sexual abuse of the child. The next day, March 10, Division worker Najair Jeffries interviewed L.T. at her school. During the interview, L.T., who was then thirteen years old, confirmed that she had been assaulted by A.M. She elaborated that A.M. "forced her to touch his lower part." Although she was not clear on the time frame, L.T. indicated the incident occurred approximately one year prior at three o'clock in the morning.
L.T. had been sleeping in her parents' bed with her mother, J.M., and A.M. because she felt ill. She claimed A.M. "woke her up from her sleep and asked her to touch him." When she refused, A.M. "forced her to touch his penis." J.M. woke up and "freaked out" when she saw what was happening; A.M. ran downstairs. L.T. spent the rest of the night at a relative's home.
When L.T. returned home the next day, A.M. apologized to her, but then grabbed her wrists and tried to get her to touch his private parts again. L.T. screamed and her mother, aunt and uncle came upstairs. For a month after this encounter, A.M. did not stay in the home, where his five-year old biological daughter, D.M., also resided. Subsequently, L.T.'s family sought help and went to a "lady who works with spirits . . . ." L.T. continued to be afraid of being at home alone with A.M., and when she expressed this fear to her mother, J.M. told her to lock herself in the bathroom until J.M. returned.
That same day, Jeffries also interviewed J.M., who initially denied that L.T. had been sexually abused, but when confronted with L.T.'s disclosure, admitted that one night in about October 2008, when L.T. was in their bed, J.M. woke up and "freaked out" when she saw A.M.'s scrotum hanging out of his boxers. When she and A.M. went downstairs, A.M. admitted forcing L.T. to touch him. She then demanded that A.M. leave the house "for a month or so," and made him stay in the basement when he returned. J.M., as did L.T., denied that A.M. had ever touched D.M. inappropriately.
Later that same day - March 10, 2009 - Detective Son and another detective of the Hudson County Special Victims Unit (SVU) separately interviewed L.T., J.M. and A.M. Jeffries observed their sworn, digitally-recorded interviews. L.T. iterated to the SVU detectives the same account she gave to Jeffries, namely that A.M. woke her up at around 3:00 a.m. and forced her to "massage his penis." She clarified what she meant by "massage": "He put my hand around [his penis] and he kept on moving it up and down." In describing the morning after, L.T. said A.M. put his hand over her heart because "he wanted to see if her heart was beating fast," and his voice began changing, which frightened L.T.
J.M. also gave Detective Son a version consistent with that told to Jeffries. She said she knew "her daughter [L.T. was] being sexually abused, but denied that [L.T.] was physically abused by her stepfather." J.M. repeated that she woke up to see A.M.'s scrotum hanging out from his boxers while L.T. was in their bed. She also stated "at first [L.T.] and her husband would not go into details about what happened but then [L.T.] told her that her husband asked her to touch him." J.M. also said she had seen her husband "jiggle her children['s] bedroom door at 3 a.m."
At his interview with Detective Son, A.M. claimed to have no recollection of the incident with L.T., but "he wanted to kill himself after he was told that he told [L.T.] to touch his private area." In describing his next-day encounter with L.T., A.M. claimed he "apologized to her and asked her if she was scared of him. He . . . grabbed [L.T.] by the shoulders and shook her in order to test whether or not [she] was really scared of him." A.M. also expressed a belief that he had been possessed, that "whatever was inside the house was getting inside of me. . . . [I] would hear the bathroom knob shaking, the lights flickering off and on, and heard things in the basement."
A.M. was arrested for sexual assault, child abuse and child endangerment. DYFS determined the allegation of sexual assault was substantiated, referred L.T. and D.M. for medical and psychological evaluations, and on May 11, 2009, filed a Verified Complaint and Order to Show Cause for Care and Supervision, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12. The verified complaint alleged A.M. had sexually abused his stepdaughter L.T., and that J.M. had failed to protect her daughter ...