On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Cape May County, Docket No. FG-05-08-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 7, 2011
Before Judges Fuentes, Harris, and Koblitz.
In these consolidated guardianship/termination of parental rights appeals, a mother (Helen) and father (James),*fn1 appeal from an order entered on May 26, 2010, terminating their parental rights. The child involved is Jamie, who was four years old at the time of the guardianship trial. The law guardian for the child supports the termination of Helen's and James's parental rights. We affirm.
Helen gave birth to Jamie in early April 2005. The day after the delivery, a nurse at the hospital made a referral to the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division), advising, among other things, that Helen had a history of depression and bipolar disorder. The Division learned that during a September 2004 prenatal visit, Helen had informed hospital staff that she had been taking medication for her bipolar disorder until February or March of 2004, and that she had been sexually abused "a long time ago." Helen denied drug and alcohol use at that time, but three weeks later, she admitted using marijuana two to three times per week. Several drug tests over the next few months proved negative for substance abuse.
A Division employee spoke to Helen at the hospital. Helen described her relationship with the child's father James, indicating that once she had a fight with him that caused her to obtain a restraining order. They also frequently consumed illegal drugs together. Helen represented that although she had used controlled dangerous substances in the past, including marijuana and crack, she was free of the substances since September 2004, and that James was likewise since December 2004, when he was arrested on a sexual assault charge.
Helen informed the caseworker that her symptoms of bipolar disorder ended when she stopped using illicit drugs. She had received that diagnosis in 2002, when she was hospitalized after being raped by an unnamed assailant. Before that, she claimed that her mother's boyfriend had sexually abused her, which consequently led her to live with her grandmother.
The Division took custody of Jamie because of the parents' history of drug use and domestic violence, and on April 7, 2005, Jamie was placed with a resource family.*fn2 The Division contacted James's mother to serve as a resource for her grandson, but she declined custody because she had given birth in December 2004 to "a child about the same age and [she] had been out of work for a number of months and was unable to take any other time off and her life was just too hectic at that point."
The Division continued its investigation of the family. James told a caseworker that the incident underlying the sexual assault charge involved only a consensual sexual encounter. He reported that he last used marijuana a month earlier, that he used cocaine in the past, and that he was using alcohol. He said that Helen sought the restraining order because he pinned her to the floor when she was "acting strange" after ceasing to take her bipolar disorder medication.
In May 2005, James admitted that he had smoked marijuana daily since age fourteen, and that he had also ingested cocaine two or three times a month from age seventeen. Helen was also evaluated for drug use at the end of April 2005. She reported two involuntary hospitalizations for mental health issues. She claimed that she used to drink two glasses of wine per month, and that she had not consumed alcohol since May 2004. She further indicated that although she had ingested marijuana and crack, and "has taken Percocet recreationally on occasion," her last use of a controlled dangerous substance was in August 2004. After considering that Helen might not have been entirely truthful in reporting her prior drug use, the evaluator recommended on-going counseling.
Between May and October 2005, James and Helen participated in drug treatment and counseling programs. James failed to comply with his recommended outpatient treatment and was terminated from the program. Helen was reported as successfully completing a substance abuse program by complying with therapy, remaining drug free, staying employed, not showing "overt symptoms" of bipolar disorder, and not requiring medication.
On October 28, 2005, James was sentenced to six months imprisonment and three years probation for his guilty plea to fourth-degree criminal sexual contact, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-3(b).
On November 4, 2005, Jamie was returned to Helen's custody.*fn3
James was then incarcerated, but he was granted supervised
visitation rights upon release, subject to the Division's
selection of an appropriate supervisor, who expressly could not be
James was released from jail on March 5, 2006.*fn4 Because Helen worked several jobs, caregivers regularly cared for Jamie, sometimes for weeks at a time. Then, in June 2007, the Division was advised that Helen was using marijuana and was coming home from work intoxicated. The Division also learned that James visited Jamie at Helen's residence when she was not present. It was further reported that Jamie was left unsupervised in the home while Helen slept.
On June 20, 2007, the Division was told by Helen that she had moved Jamie out of New Jersey to live with a relative elsewhere. Helen refused to meet with a caseworker unless she was ordered to do so by a court. Helen also refused to divulge the whereabouts of James, who was unable to be reached by his parole officer. On June 29, 2007, the Division filed a Title Thirty investigation complaint seeking the aid of the court in directing Helen and James to cooperate in the search for Jamie.
On July 2, 2007, Helen told a caseworker that she and Jamie were "now staying ten states away from" New Jersey and refused to say where she and her son were living. On July 3, 2007, the Division filed a new Title Nine protective services complaint based upon Helen's "ongoing substance abuse, non-compliance with court order regarding [James]'s contact with [Jamie], refusing to speak with the Division, and leaving the state with the child."*fn5
By July 17, 2007, James turned himself in, admitted that he and Helen had gone out of state, and was jailed for violating parole. Near the end of August 2007, the Division located Jamie and Helen in Missouri. On August 24, 2007, Missouri authorities took custody of Jamie, and three days later the Division brought Jamie back to New Jersey and placed him again with his resource family.
Helen returned to New Jersey to live with her father. In a meeting with a Division caseworker shortly after arriving, Helen admitted that James's main residence was her home, and that she allowed James to be alone with Jamie because he sometimes cared for the child while she was at work. She acknowledged one occasion when she went to bed after work under the misimpression that Jamie was being supervised.
The Division immediately referred Helen to counseling services, which she utilized on several occasions. James started substance abuse counseling, but he did not attend regularly.
In early November 2007, David London, a clinical psychologist at Cape Counseling Services, performed a psychological evaluation of Helen, and one week later he issued his report. He found that Helen had adjustment and personality disorders. He believed that she had the ability "to parent and protect the safety and well-being of her child" and "just needs to examine herself, take responsibility for her choices regarding her son, work within the rules, and cooperate with services." Her noted weaknesses were that she could "be naive and cynical, minimize problems and faults, cast herself in an overly positive light, and be blind to personal flaws."
Dr. London recommended counseling and parenting classes to help Helen "gain insight and adopt pro-social ways to resolve problems and parent her son," as he believed that she had a "fair" prognosis for benefiting from them. He further recommended continuing substance abuse screening "for some time," and a "very slow" relaxation of supervision at visitation in accordance with her progress.
In late November 2007, Janet Cahill, a psychologist and the director of the Rowan University Child & Family Assessment Clinic, evaluated Helen. Dr. Cahill found "evidence of significant psychopathology" that would likely "interfere with safe and effective parenting." Helen had poor life skills and poor problem-solving abilities, which accounted for her allowing James to move in with her despite the court order, for relying too much on the resource family, and for the possible neglect of certain medical conditions of her son.
Dr. Cahill diagnosed Helen as exhibiting dysthemic disorder, but she did not find any symptoms of bipolar disorder during her multiple sessions with Helen. She recommended "time limited therapy" for Helen's "possible depressive symptoms and her coping skills," and called Helen a "good candidate for a cognitive behavioral approach" if she were motivated to pursue it.
In late April 2008, Dr. Cahill performed a follow-up evaluation of Helen. She noted that Helen had moved in with James, who was described by a Rowan caseworker as "making significant and positive changes in his life" by being compliant with treatment and remaining "clean and sober." James was further considered to be "able to safely interact with Jamie." The caseworker found that Helen exhibited "significant" changes, namely, being "more thoughtful and reliable with [Jamie]," being willing to take responsibility for him, and recognizing that she needed to ...