On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Mercer County, Docket No. FG-11-44-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Messano, Yannotti and Espinosa.
D.C.B. appeals from an order entered by the trial court on December 8, 2010, denying her motion to vacate a final judgment by default entered on July 16, 2010, which terminated her parental rights to the minor C.D.V. and awarded the Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) custody of the child. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand the matter to the trial court for further proceedings.
We briefly summarize the relevant facts, drawn from the record established in the trial court. D.C.B. gave birth to C.J.V. on April 27, 1995, and to C.D.V. on March 18, 1999. R.V. is the birth father of both children.*fn1 In August 2002, the Division received a report that D.C.B.'s residence was strewn with garbage and infested with insects. In September 2002, D.C.B. informed the Division that she and her children were living with her mother, A.B. In addition, D.C.B. reported that she was on a new medication and was attending a treatment clinic, to address certain long-standing mental health issues, including depression.
By March 2003, D.C.B. and the children had moved in with D.C.B.'s aunt. D.C.B. later established her own residence in a one-bedroom apartment by June 2003. The Division also received a report in June 2003, indicating that R.V. had taken C.D.V. to the emergency room because the child had bruises all over his body. A doctor reported that the marks were consistent with hyperactivity, and the child had reported that he was bruised when he fell down.
In October 2005, the Division was informed that C.D.V. indicated that he wanted to kill himself and he was placed in a hospital for psychiatric treatment. In June 2006, C.J.V. underwent a psychological evaluation, and she was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other conditions for which medication was prescribed. Counseling was recommended.
In August 2006, D.C.B. contacted the Division to report that she had taken C.D.V. to a crisis center after she had difficulty restraining him during a fight with C.J.V. The boy was admitted to a hospital. In October, 2006, C.D.V. was placed in a group home for children. C.D.V.'s therapist reported to the Division that D.C.B. had not been protecting the child since she allowed him to speak to R.V. on the telephone, after which C.J.V. had exhibited certain behavioral problems.
On November 2, 2006, representatives from the Division attended a meeting concerning C.D.V. with social and mental health workers. C.D.V. was classified as having multiple disabilities and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and ADHD. Several days later, one of the Division's caseworkers visited D.C.B.'s home and found that it was filthy, cluttered, and without operational smoke alarms.
In January 2007, D.C.B. contacted the Division and reported that C.J.V. had been refusing to take her medication. In March 2007, D.C.B. was hospitalized for diabetes treatment, and C.J.V. was temporarily placed with A.B. The Division became concerned when it learned that three men who were living with A.B. had problems with alcohol abuse.
On March 20, 2007, the Division filed a complaint in the trial court seeking custody, care and supervision of C.D.V. and C.J.V. The court granted the Division's application. The court ordered D.C.B. to undergo a psychological evaluation and required A.B. to cooperate with a substance abuse evaluation.
On March 28, 2007, Dr. Chester E. Sigafoos (Dr. Sigafoos) evaluated D.C.B. and determined that she was suffering from a variety of disorders, including bipolar and major depressive disorders, dependent personality disorder, histrionic personality traits and anti-social personality features. Dr. Sigafoos opined that D.C.B.'s prognosis for change was poor because of her lack of insight, motivation and commitment to change. He concluded that D.C.B. could not "effectively parent her children and insure their safety and well being[.]"
In August and September 2007, D.C.B.'s attorney arranged for Dr. Jonathan H. Mack (Dr. Mack) to perform a psychological evaluation of D.C.B. Dr. Mack determined that D.C.B. should continue her psychiatric and psychological treatment, avail herself of other services, and the Division should work towards reunification of D.C.B. and the children.
At some point, C.D.V. was placed in a foster home. In October 2007, the Division received a report that C.D.V. was engaging in self-injurious behaviors and his agitation level was increasing. Later that month, C.D.V.'s foster parents took him to a hospital because he had tried several times to jump off a moving school van and repeatedly hit his head against the van's window.
C.D.V. was later transferred to another hospital. He was discharged from that hospital on November 8, 2007, and medications were prescribed. However, on November 29, 2007, C.D.V. was again taken to a hospital after he became agitated, had paranoid delusions and threatened to kill himself. C.D.V. was transferred to St. Clare's Hospital.
The Therapeutic Foster Care Program decided that upon his discharge, C.D.V. should not be returned to his foster family. The program recommended C.D.V.'s placement at the Children's Transitional Residence because he required more structured care to address his behavior.
In January 2008, C.D.V. was released from St. Clare's and placed at Davis House, a facility operated by Youth Consultation Service (YCS). YCS's psychiatric evaluation noted that, while C.D.V. was in his foster home, he had refused to attend school, take medications, do homework or shower. The evaluation also noted that, after C.D.V. was removed from his foster home, he claimed that he was "hearing the devil" and the devil had prevented him from being "a good boy."
Meanwhile, D.C.B. had been attending a program at the Family Guidance Center (FGC). The FGC's report indicated that, although D.C.B. had availed herself of some of its services, she failed to attend numerous appointments for individual therapy and medication management. D.C.B. was told that the FGC would not continue to provide her with services if she missed any other appointments.
On January 8, 2007, D.C.B. appeared at FGC for a medication management session. It was reported that D.C.B. had poor hygiene and complained of anxiety and depression. In February 2008, C.J.V. was returned to D.C.B.'s care. A Division caseworker visited D.C.B. and ...