On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Warren County, Docket No. FN-21-0115-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 31, 2011
Before Judges Parrillo and Alvarez.
In these consolidated appeals, defendants L.M. and F.M. appeal the March 5, 2009 determination that they abused or neglected K.R., who was then sixteen years old, as defined by N.J.S.A. 9:8.21(c)(4)(b), after a fact-finding hearing. See N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.44. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.
The relevant facts are undisputed. In the late afternoon or early evening of September 16, 2008, K.R. became embroiled in an argument with her older sister, E.R., at the sister's home, over baby-sitting money K.R. claimed E.R. owed her. At the time, K.R. was under the influence of marijuana and Klonopin, a prescription anti-anxiety medication. K.R. had been abusing drugs for an unspecified period of time prior to this episode. Since the prior year, the Division had provided services, including counseling for K.R. L.M. is K.R.'s mother; F.M. is her step-father.
E.R. called L.M., who drove over with F.M., to intercede in the quarrel. L.M.'s recollection was that she and her husband were in the midst of running an errand when they were contacted by E.R. They drove to E.R.'s apartment, and L.M. was able to convince K.R. to leave with her and F.M. L.M. wanted K.R. to return home, while K.R. insisted on being driven to a friend's house.
L.M. attempted to force K.R. into the car while F.M. waited and eventually succeeded in doing so, after K.R. got out of the vehicle at least once. In the struggle, L.M. left finger marks on K.R.'s upper arm and K.R. hit her face, causing a small bruise. When K.R. finally got in the car, she refused to tell her parents the friend's address, and as they drove away, she demanded that she be dropped off at a nearby corner. K.R. got out of the car and disappeared down an alley.
Shortly thereafter, at approximately 7:00 p.m., K.R. called the Phillipsburg police, claiming that her mother had hit her, pushed her into a car, and bruised her arm. She was taken to the station, where police photographed her bruised arm and face, and called the Division. During the interview by the Division worker, K.R. denied that her mother had struck her and said she thought the bruise occurred when L.M. and she were wrestling as
L.M. attempted to force her into the car. K.R. said that her mother had never hit her but that she was nonetheless afraid to go home, would run away if forced to go home, and was afraid of her mother.
When the episode occurred, L.M. and F.M. had the phone numbers for K.R.'s counselor and a local mobile crisis unit and called neither resource. At approximately 10:00 p.m., they were contacted by the Division worker from the police station. L.M. told her that K.R. should be placed in a drug rehabilitation facility.
The key issue in this case concerns L.M.'s and F.M.'s failure to act after K.R. got out of the car. The trial judge found that their lack of response constituted abuse and neglect because, despite knowing their child was under the influence, once she walked away, they did not "attempt to get help for her . . . ." The judge concluded that the Division had proven its case by a preponderance of the evidence because "no one went after this child, no one tried to get her help after she disappeared out of this car. Nobody acted to protect her." She went on to state:
[O]nce . . . the child left the car, she was left . . . on her own in a state, in a mental and psychological state on drugs, which could ...