On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-0109-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 23, 2012 -
Before Judges Parrillo and Alvarez.
Defendant L.M. appeals the November 5, 2010 Family Part judgment terminating her parental rights to N.M., born August 19, 2006, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15(c) and -15.1. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.*fn1
The Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) removed N.M. from L.M.'s care on an emergent basis on February 7, 2009. It was the second referral the Division had received regarding the child, although L.M. had numerous contacts with the Division beginning in 1997 regarding two other children whose placements are not in dispute. In fact, L.M.'s parental rights were previously terminated as to one of those children.
The Division filed a verified complaint for custody of N.M. on February 10, 2009. The child was placed initially with the maternal grandmother, and subsequently, with a maternal cousin.*fn2
The child continues to reside with the cousin and she wishes to adopt him.
The Division engaged in reunification efforts until January 20, 2010, when a permanency hearing was conducted. At that juncture, the Family Part judge accepted the Division's plan for termination of parental rights, followed by adoption. The court then indicated that "it is not and will not be safe to return the child home in the foreseeable future because [of L.M.'s] serious and ongoing mental health problem . . . ." The court also referred to L.M.'s unresolved substance abuse issues as additional grounds that warranted the Division moving forward. Accordingly, the Division filed a complaint for guardianship on February 25, 2010.
The following family history was developed during the trial. The Division's first contact with L.M. with regard to N.M. occurred on February 27, 2008, when L.M. was admitted to a hospital for auditory hallucinations and homicidal ideation towards N.M., which she subsequently denied. At the time, she was reported as having said that "babies are bad." Although L.M. had been prescribed medication, she refused to take it. N.M. was then in the care of his maternal grandmother.
The Division took no further action as L.M. had arranged for the child to stay with her mother, and L.M.'s doctor at the time believed that the issue had been "blown out of proportion[,]" although the Division worker urged L.M. to continue to attend "South Jersey Behavioral," the agency that was treating her mental health issues. The Division closed its case in August 2008 as L.M. was then compliant with her medication regimen. Records from that hospitalization also indicate that L.M. was to return to a substance abuse treatment provider, Parkside Recovery, for outpatient services and methadone maintenance. Whether L.M. returned to Parkside Recovery is not known; the date she stopped taking her medication is also unknown.
On February 7, 2009, almost a year later, L.M. appeared with N.M. at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, claiming, in graphic terms, that the child had been sexually assaulted. L.M. said that when she awakened that morning and checked on the child, he had semen and pubic hair in his mouth, and signs of assault around his rectum. L.M. was uncooperative and attempted to leave the facility before the child could be seen by a physician, although she did ask to speak to a Division worker. After being interviewed, L.M. was admitted to the crisis unit of the hospital. This episode resulted in the Division seeking emergency removal of N.M.
Even though the Our Lady of Lourdes doctor concluded, after examining N.M., that the allegations of sexual abuse were unfounded, the Division had N.M. evaluated on February 10, 2009. The rape kit completed at the hospital did not produce evidence of abuse; no abuse was found to have occurred.
On April 1, 2009, during a visit with N.M. at Division offices, L.M. took the child out of the building without authorization. She was discovered some two hours later; in the interim she had changed the child's clothing and taken him to a shelter. L.M. ultimately pled guilty to interference with custody, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-4(b), and on July 17, 2009, was placed on probation for a term of two years, conditioned upon her compliance with her medication regimen and with Division recommendations.
The Division required L.M. to complete a substance abuse evaluation and referred her to the Substance Abuse Initiative. Evaluations were scheduled for June 16, June 25, and July 8, 2009. L.M. missed all of the appointments, resulting in the closure of her case on July 16, 2009.
On July 14, 2009, L.M. attended a psychological evaluation with Dr. Meryl E. Udell. It was Udell's opinion that L.M. suffered from "[b]ipolar [d]isorder with psychotic features v. schizophrenia," and "[o]piate [d]ependence in [r]emission by report of [L.M.]." She concluded that L.M. was "not able to appropriately and safely parent her child at this time." Udell's determination stemmed from L.M.'s significant mental health issues and her complete lack of understanding of the nature of her difficulties. Udell noted that in addition to her mental health issues, L.M. suffered from chronic homelessness and unemployment. She reported that at times L.M. had become hostile towards her. L.M. claimed she had not used heroin in "quite a while[,]" and denied the use of any drugs other than heroin or methadone.
Udell wrote an addendum to the evaluation report after she learned from the records of an agency called Crisis Services that on February 7, 2009, six months prior, L.M. had tested positive for cocaine and benzodiazepines. In the addendum, Udell recommended ...