On appeal from the Division of Youth and Family Services, Docket No. AHU 08-0198.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 11, 2012
Before Judges Fuentes and Graves.
S.F. appeals from the final decision of the Director of the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division) that found sufficient grounds to substantiate allegations that she abused or neglected her six-year-old niece A.T, by leaving the child home alone for an extended period of time. We affirm. These are the salient facts.
At 12:59 p.m. on January 18, 2008, the Lakewood Police Department received a 911 call from six-year-old A.T. claiming that she was afraid because a "black cat" was loose in the house. The child also told the 911 operator that she was alone in the house. Police Officer Sheehy (first name not disclosed in the record) was dispatched to the residence while the 911 operator remained on the telephone with the child.
When Sheehy arrived, he observed through a second floor window that the "cat" was in fact a squirrel. Although the 911 operator tried to get A.T. to open the door to let Sheehy into the house, the child said she was too afraid of the "cat" to come out from her place of refuge. After confirming that all other "access points" to the house were "locked," Sheehy forced his way through the second-floor rear porch door. Sheehy found A.T. by following the sound of her voice as she spoke to the 911 operator. After determining that A.T. was "O.K.," Sheehy isolated the squirrel in a downstairs room, and called for an animal control officer. The animal control officer released the squirrel from the house without further incident.
A police dispatcher located A.T.'s mother, T.F., by phone, and her aunt S.F., who was at the time working as a teacher at Lakewood High School. T.F. told the police dispatcher that she had left her daughter in the care of her sister S.F. According to Sheehy, when S.F. returned to the house, she told him that she had left A.T. home alone that morning "while she went to work at the high school." S.F. also told Sheehy that "she had come home to check on [A.T.] midday and then returned to work."
Sheehy reported the incident to DYFS that same day. The Division assigned Intake Worker and Investigator Margaret McDonald to investigate the matter. When McDonald arrived at S.F.'s residence at approximately 4:00 p.m. that same day, A.T.'s maternal uncle told her that T.F. had picked up her daughter and returned to her home in Newark. McDonald then called T.F. at the telephone number provided by the maternal uncle. T.F. agreed to return to the Lakewood residence with A.T. in order to meet with McDonald. When McDonald arrived at the residence later that evening, S.F. told her that T.F. had changed her mind and now wanted McDonald to meet her in Newark.
McDonald then decided to interview S.F. about the circumstances leading to A.T. being left alone earlier that day. McDonald testified that S.F. told her that she and her mother (A.T.'s grandmother) care for A.T. during the week. The child returns to her mother's residence in Newark on the weekends. A.T. uses S.F.'s residence in Lakewood in order to attend the local school. A.T. did not attend school on the day in question because she was sick. According to McDonald, S.F. decided to leave the child home alone because the high school where she worked as a teacher was around the corner from her house. S.F. believed she could return home and check up on the child during her free time.
Consistent with this plan, S.F. told McDonald that she checked up on A.T. twice that morning and the child appeared fine. She also prepared lunch for A.T. during one of these visits. She was on her way to check up on A.T. for the third time when she received the telephone call from the police. After this incident, she decided to take A.T. with her to the high school. S.F. did not see anything wrong with leaving a six-year-old, presumably sick, child home alone under these circumstances.*fn1
Division Investigator Erica Reed interviewed A.T. and her mother in their home in Newark. The child corroborated S.F.'s account of events, including that her aunt had come home twice that day to check on her prior to the "cat" incident. A.T. also told Reed that this was the first time her aunt had left her home alone. Based on the child's account of events, Reed concluded that A.T. had been left alone for approximately three hours. Reed's interview with A.T. was otherwise unremarkable except for one issue. According to Reed, even after she told A.T. that it was a squirrel, the child remained adamant ...