On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Sussex County, Docket No. FG-19-11-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 10, 2012
Before Judges Carchman and Baxter.
Defendant C.C., the mother of M.C. (hereinafter, Max, a fictitious name)*fn1 and T.C. (hereinafter, Tara, a fictitious name) and defendant M.W., the father of Max, appeal from a judgment of the Family Part terminating C.C.'s parental rights to Max and Tara, and in M.W.'s case, to Max.*fn2 Both defendants contend the court erred because plaintiff New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division) did not present sufficient evidence at trial to satisfy the best-interests standard, set forth at N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a).
Despite receiving many DYFS-provided services over numerous years to assist her in overcoming substance abuse issues, C.C. had recently experienced multiple relapses. Although C.C. claimed that she was currently sober, the trial court concluded that she was unlikely able to maintain sobriety in the foreseeable future. M.W. was incarcerated*fn3 a few months after Max's birth, and he will not be released until 2041. The court concluded that neither parent was able to parent the children. We agree and affirm.
We briefly set forth the relevant facts. C.C., now forty, and M.W., now forty-five, are the parents of Max, born on November 14, 2000. Tara, C.C.'s daughter, was born on August 30, 2002. Her birth-father is deceased. C.C. is the mother of two other children, one of whom died in January 2007 in an automobile accident, and a second, now twenty, who is in the custody of his foster parents pursuant to a Kinship Legal Guardianship agreement.
DYFS first became involved with C.C. in 1992, when she gave birth to a cocaine-positive child. Since that time, her children were removed from her custody as C.C. was using cocaine, heroin and other illegal substances. She was, from time to time, admitted to detoxification programs. C.C. had successful results from such programs and maintained sobriety for substantial periods of time, during which her children were returned to her.
While C.C's children were in her care, however, other problems arose. DYFS received referrals indicating that both Max and Tara had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior, suggesting sexual abuse, and D.H., a former paramour of C.C., was identified as a possible perpetrator. DYFS provided both C.C. and the children counseling services to deal with these issues, but the services were terminated after the parties failed to attend. In 2007, there were allegations that C.C. was again using drugs.
On December 12, 2007, DYFS received a referral alleging that C.C.'s oldest child had been left alone when C.C. traveled to Connecticut. According to the anonymous referral, later substantiated, Max and Tara had been left with their maternal great-grandmother in Newark, who was not provided with C.C.'s contact information. Additionally, DYFS concluded that C.C. gave conflicting details about her whereabouts. While C.C. claimed she was unable to make contact during her absence, she admitted she had made outgoing calls on her cellular phone.
As a result, the Division effectuated a Dodd*fn4 removal of Max, Tara and a third child not a subject of this litigation, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.29, on December 12, 2007. On December 14, the Division received custody of the three children and temporarily placed them with their maternal great-grandmother.
Danielle Cuoco, the DYFS caseworker assigned to the family from February 1, 2008, to February 26, 2009, went to C.C.'s home on several occasions and attempted to contact her, to no avail. Meanwhile, C.C. was referred for a psychological evaluation at the Center for Evaluation and Counseling (CEC); however, she failed to attend two scheduled appointments. CEC conducted psychological evaluations of the children and concluded that Max was "an undersocialized[,] defiant, sexualized[,] aggressive youngster whose needs for structure and discipline have been neglected." CEC recommended that he receive a "psychiatric evaluation to determine whether . . . medication can assist him in controlling his behavior and whether . . . residential treatment is needed." With respect to Tara, she "presented as a speech[-]delayed, neglected child who is confused about her current placement," and needed speech therapy.
On February 19, 2008, C.C. tested positive for cocaine. On her own initiative, C.C. contacted the Division on March 18, 2008, submitted to a drug test, and again tested positive for cocaine. She admitted she had used illegal drugs during the preceding thirty days. As a result, she was admitted to an inpatient program at St. Clare's Hospital on March 26, 2008.
C.C. stipulated that she harmed her children by testing positive for cocaine in November 2007. The court ordered her to continue substance abuse treatment and supervised visitation. She subsequently began an intensive outpatient program at St. Clare's Center for Prevention and Counseling, which she successfully completed in August 2008. During her time in treatment, C.C. consistently attended one hour weekly supervised visits with her children.
During a CEC evaluation of C.C., she admitted she had relapsed in November 2007:
I relapsed. Um, I um, lost a son,*fn5 but that's not the reason I used. I used because, I don't know, I guess I was . . . I really don't know why. I can't really even blame it on losing my child, because I didn't use until a year after he died.
She also admitted she had relapsed again after her children were removed in December 2007. The evaluator concluded that C.C. was
"a chronic drug addict who present[ed] a risk for relapse and neglectful parenting. She exhibited narcissistic and histrionic personality traits and has limited insight into the negative impact of her addiction on her children." It was recommended for her to continue substance abuse treatment, participate in psychotherapy and parenting skills training, and demonstrate sobriety for at least six months before reunification with her children. DYFS referred her to Dr. Jessica Platt for psychotherapy.
On May 29, 2008, the children were removed from their maternal great-grandmother's care because other adults living in the great-grandmother's residence had not complied with the home study process. C.C. wanted the children placed with J.T.C., but J.T.C. also had not completed the home study process. Two other relatives of C.C. volunteered to care for the children, but both later withdrew their names from consideration. In the absence of viable relative placements, DYFS placed the children with foster families.
On June 13, 2008, CEC conducted a psychological evaluation of C.C.'s then-paramour, R.M. The conclusion of the evaluation was that he was "an immature, guarded adult who was initially not forthcoming about his criminal history." The evaluator suspected that R.M. was currently using illegal substances, even though he reported having been sober for nine years. Substance abuse treatment and psychotherapy were recommended in the event R.M. planned to reunify with C.C.'s children.
On June 21, 2008, Max's foster family contacted DYFS, stating that Max had threatened his foster mother with a knife, and requested his immediate removal. Upon investigation, DYFS substantiated the allegations, and further discovered that Max had threatened to harm himself. He was subsequently placed with another family.
On August 1, 2008, DYFS received another report from Max's foster mother, this time alleging Tara had performed oral sex on Max while they were watching a pornographic movie prior to their removal from C.C.'s care. Upon investigation, Max stated that Tara performed oral sex on him "many times," and C.C. had seen it once and sent them to their rooms. At trial, C.C. denied that she had seen Max and Tara engaged in oral sex but admitted that she saw them kissing "once."
The referrals continued in August 2008, when Tara's foster mother reported to DYFS that Tara had been touching another foster child's genitals and requested her immediate removal. Tara was removed and placed with Ms. H. She remained there through the trial. Maritiza Francois, the DYFS caseworker assigned to the family in July 2009, noted that Ms. H. consistently expressed a desire to adopt Tara. When asked in 2010 if she would like to live with Ms. H. forever, Tara nodded yes.
In late August 2008, DYFS received an update on C.C.'s progress in psychotherapy. The psychotherapist, Dr. Platt, stated that C.C. was "compliant with all appointments" but "appear[ed] vulnerable to relapse and problems in parenting."
Following a case management and compliance review hearing on September 9, 2008, the court ordered C.C. "to commence unsupervised visitation" with the children, and, "barring an unforeseen clinical therapeutic or substance abuse related issue(s), the Division plan is to reunify the children with ...