February 24, 2012
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
S.T.B., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF J.M. AND M.B., MINORS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Mercer County, Docket No. FG-11-0024-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 7, 2012
Before Judges Carchman, Fisher and Baxter.
Defendant S.B., the biological mother of Jennifer, born January 12, 2008, and Melissa,*fn1 born November 6, 2009, appeals from the final judgment issued by the Family Part terminating her parental rights to both children.*fn2 Defendant contends that plaintiff Division of Youth and Family Services (Division or DYFS) failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence the four statutory prongs contained in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). After carefully considering S.B.'s arguments in light of the record and governing legal standards, we affirm.
We will not recite in detail the history of the Division's involvement with S.B. Instead, we incorporate by reference the factual findings and legal conclusions contained in Judge Blackburn's comprehensive oral opinion rendered on February 2, 2011. We add only the following comments. We are satisfied that commencing with the Division's first contact with S.B. in January 2008, and continuing up to and including the commencement of the trial just shy of three years later, the Division provided multiple opportunities for defendant to reunify with her children, both of whom have substantial medical needs, and both of whom tested positive at birth for cocaine. The Division also afforded S.B. numerous opportunities to address her mental health issues and her longstanding and intractable addiction to cocaine. None of these interventions proved successful.
Judge Blackburn carefully reviewed the evidence presented by DYFS, and thereafter concluded that it had satisfied by clear and convincing evidence all of the legal requirements for an order of guardianship. The judge's opinion tracks the statutory requirements of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a), satisfies the standards established by In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 346-49 (1999), In re Guardianship of D.M.H., 161 N.J. 365, 378-84 (1999), and N.J. Division of Youth & Family Services v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 599-611 (1986), and is supported by the record, In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002).
We reject S.B.'s contentions that (1) "the bonding evaluations [performed by Dr. Amy Becker-Mattes] were of such short duration that they are not an accurate snapshot of the true relationships between the children and [S.B. and the two foster mothers]"; (2) S.B. had, in the past, and was, at the time of trial, "again successfully conquering her addiction"; (3) "DYFS did not provide the appropriate trauma[-]specific treatment for [S.B.]"; (4) "the two children at issue should not have been separated into two different foster homes"; and (5) "there was not sufficient reason to conclude that termination would not cause more harm than good."
As for the length of the bonding evaluations conducted by Dr. Becker-Mattes, S.B. has presented no evidence, expert or otherwise, to support her contention that a bonding evaluation that lasts for "only" one hour is insufficient to reliably accomplish the purposes for which the evaluation is conducted. Moreover, Dr. Becker-Mattes specifically noted that throughout the bonding evaluation of S.B. with Jennifer and Melissa, there were long periods of silence, during which Jennifer had an unhappy expression and avoided eye contact with her mother. There is no reason to conclude that a longer period of evaluation would have yielded different results or changed the conclusion of Dr. Becker-Mattes that neither child had a secure bond with her mother, and that S.B. was poorly-attuned to her daughters' needs and had a negligible emotional bond with them.
As for S.B.'s second claim, that she had in the past, and was at the time of trial, "conquering her addiction," the record establishes that after a period of sobriety, S.B. relapsed a mere six weeks later and began using cocaine again. As we observed in N.J. Division of Youth & Family Services v. C.S., 367 N.J. Super. 76, 114 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 180 N.J. 456 (2004), a child should not be expected to wait for her mother to "get herself together." "A child is not a chattel in which a parent has an untempered property right." Id. at 110. Children must not languish indefinitely in foster care while a birth parent attempts to correct the conditions that resulted in an out-of-home placement. Id. at 111. "A child cannot be held prisoner of the rights of others, even those of his or her parents. Children have their own rights, including the right to a permanent, safe and stable placement." Ibid.
Moreover, as the opinion of the Law Guardian's expert, Dr. Maureen Santina, makes clear, S.B. is "an emotionally immature woman who displays poor insight into her own dysfunctional behavior" and who has "exhibited poor judgment and irresponsibility . . . in her parenting of her children." Dr. Santina also opined that S.B.'s "long history of substance addiction" makes it "unlikely that [she] will be able to maintain the long-term stability necessary to provide [her two daughters] with a safe, secure environment." We concur in Judge Blackburn's determination that S.B.'s brief, and ultimately unsuccessful, period of sobriety was an insufficient basis upon which to reject the Division's request for guardianship.
In her third point, S.B. asserts that DYFS did not provide psychological treatment that was specifically designed for someone, like S.B., who had been sexually molested as a child. While it is true that Dr. Santina opined that S.B. "should participate in trauma-focused psychotherapy to address her experience of molestation and the emotional damage it has caused her," Dr. Santina did not opine, as S.B. suggests, that the absence of such treatment had any bearing on S.B.'s inadequacies as a parent.
Fourth, S.B. asserts that her two daughters should not have been separated into two different foster homes. Apart from the fact that S.B. did not raise this issue before the trial court even though an opportunity to do so existed, which will generally result in our refusal to consider such a claim, Nieder v. Royal Indemn. Ins. Co., 62 N.J. 229, 234 (1973), S.B.'s argument ignores the fact that Jennifer has been placed in a pre-adoptive home with the niece of Jennifer's biological father. We have no reason to believe that this foster mother would be willing to accept Melissa, to whom she is not related. We decline to consider this issue further.
Finally, S.B. maintains the evidence was insufficient to satisfy the standard for termination of parental rights established by N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). As Judge Blackburn explained in her comprehensive and well-reasoned oral opinion, S.B. endangered her children by exposing them to cocaine during her pregnancy, by physically abusing Jennifer and by returning to drug use. The evidence also establishes that despite the extensive array of services offered by the Division, S.B. was unable to successfully address and resolve the parenting deficits that led to the removal of her children in the first place. We are also satisfied that the termination of her parental rights will not do more harm than good.