On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division-Family Part, Somerset County, Docket No. FN-18-194-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: January 19, 2012
Before Judges Cuff and St. John.
Defendant B.T., Sr., appeals from an order finding that he neglected his children, J.T. and B.T., Jr., by placing them at substantial risk of harm, and a second order requiring defendant to cooperate with the services arranged by the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), including substance abuse treatment, individual counseling for anger management, medication management, and parenting skills training. Defendant was also restrained from the home of the children but permitted twice weekly supervised visits with them. The judge also directed defendant and the mother of the children to participate in couple's counseling.
On appeal, defendant argues that the evidence submitted by DYFS does not support a finding that he harmed his children. He also contends that the fifteen-month delay between filing the complaint and the fact-finding hearing deprived him of due process by interfering with his parental relationship with his daughter, J.T. Finally, he argues that his name should be removed from the Central Registry because the finding of neglect is not supported by the evidence.
As noted by the trial judge, the facts are largely undisputed. The principle issue is whether defendant's actions on March 1, 2009, exposed the children to such harm that a judge could find he neglected his children in accordance with N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21. The judge held defendant's three and one-half year old daughter "clearly . . . was impacted" by her knowledge that defendant took a knife, held it to his throat and threatened to take his life and that of his children and their mother. The judge further found that defendant's statements and J.T.'s knowledge of those statements "exposed her to substantial risk of harm . . . ." We disagree.
B.T., Sr., and A.L. had lived together for some time before March 1, 2009. They are the parents of J.T., and defendant believed he was the father of B.T., Jr. Sometime before March 1, defendant heard comments that caused him to question his paternity of B.T., Jr. On March 1, A.L. informed him that he was not the father of the boy.
During the afternoon of March 1, A.L., defendant and the children were in the car. A.L. was driving and the couple argued. At some point, defendant put his hands on the wheel of the car. Initial reports stated defendant grabbed the steering wheel. Defendant did not deny that he put his hands on the steering wheel, but stated that he did so because A.L. was driving too fast and he was trying to get her attention to slow down. A.L. testified that defendant quickly took his hands from the wheel. There was some dispute whether the car swerved. It is undisputed that defendant told A.L. that he would kill A.L., the children and himself if B.T., Jr., was not his biological child.
When they returned to the home they shared, defendant went to the kitchen, took a knife, went to the bathroom and held the knife to his throat. Once again, defendant threatened to kill himself, A.L. and the children. A.L. insists that J.T. did not see her father take the knife, hold the knife to his throat, or hear his spoken threat. The record reveals, however, that his daughter learned about the incident because she was able to recount it to a DYFS caseworker. In response to questions posed by the DYFS caseworker who responded to the house, J.T. stated that she was not frightened of her father but was scared in the car. At trial, the testifying DYFS caseworker, who had no personal knowledge of the case, reported that "[t]he worker asked if she was scared. And that was the term she used. And [J.T.] said, yes, she was." The testifying DYFS caseworker also stated "I believe [J.T.] did not see her father touch the steering wheel," and did not tell the DYFS caseworker that she heard her father threaten her mother.
A.L. also insisted that she never believed defendant would harm her or the children. She was, however, concerned that he would harm himself. Defendant is a veteran of military service in Iraq, was recovering from injuries sustained there, and was facing possible return to the war zone. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he has received treatment and services through the Veterans Administration, and the family has been reunited.
Defendant argues that DYFS failed to adduce sufficient evidence to establish that he neglected his daughter by causing emotional harm to her. He further contends that the delay between initiation of the Title 9 proceeding and its conclusion, as well as the agency's failure to produce a witness with personal knowledge of the circumstances, denied him due process of law.
DYFS filed a complaint on March 10, 2009, seeking care and supervision of J.T. and B.T., Jr., due ...