On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-104-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez, Ashrafi and Fasciale.
Defendant-mother M.N.R. appeals from a judgment of the Family Part terminating her parental rights to her son by birth, J.Z.R., who is now ten years old. The Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) removed the boy from M.N.R.'s care when he was three years old, and mother and son have had no contact for the past four years.
The Family Part had entered a default judgment in 2007 terminating M.N.R.'s parental rights, but on appeal, we vacated that judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings.
N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.R., No. A-1770-08 (App. Div. Sept. 24, 2009). On remand, the Family Part conducted a seven-day trial and concluded again that DYFS had met the requisite statutory elements and entered judgment terminating M.N.R.'s parental rights. In the current appeal, M.N.R. argues again that DYFS did not produce sufficient evidence to meet the statutory criteria. She also argues that the court violated procedural and evidentiary requirements in conducting the trial. Having reviewed the record in accordance with our standard of review, we affirm the Family Part's judgment.
We begin by quoting the relevant statutory elements that DYFS must prove. Under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a, parental rights are terminated when:
(1) The child's safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship;
(2) The parent is unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing the child or is unable or unwilling to provide a safe and stable home for the child and the delay of permanent placement will add to the harm. . . .
(3) [DYFS] has made reasonable efforts to provide services to help the parent correct the circumstances which led to the child's placement outside the home and the court has considered alternatives to termination of parental rights; and
(4) Termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good.
The four prongs of the statute are "not discrete and separate; they relate to and overlap with one another to provide a comprehensive standard that identifies a child's best interests." In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 348 (1999). DYFS bears the burden of proving all four prongs by clear and convincing evidence. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. G.L., 191 N.J. 596, 606 (2007).
In this case, DYFS proved the following facts. M.N.R., who is now twenty-nine years old, was raised in an abusive home.
She attended school up to the ninth grade. She can read and write but has "borderline" intellectual function. She suffers from mental illness and has been hospitalized in the past for psychiatric treatment. Sometime before 2005, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed medication for her mental condition.
M.N.R. has never worked at a stable and lasting job, depending on government assistance throughout her life. Since the age of fifteen, she has had "very short, temporary relationships with a number of men." She first became pregnant at age sixteen. She has given birth to four children, J.Z.R. being the third, and none of the children remain in her care.
DYFS has been involved with J.Z.R.'s care and custody since he was seven months old. Between October 2002 and January 2005, DYFS and the Family Part attempted to fashion permanency plans for J.Z.R., primarily based on a kinship legal guardianship by a relative in the same home as M.N.R. so that she could stay together with her son, but the plans did not come to fruition. During that time, DYFS directed M.N.R. to parenting classes and other services in an effort to facilitate its permanency plans. In June 2004, DYFS referred M.N.R. for evaluation by Guillermo Gallegos, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. Gallegos found that M.N.R. genuinely cared for and was attached to J.Z.R. but nevertheless concluded that:
As a parent [M.N.R.] falls short of being adequate. She has many unmet needs and little tolerance for frustration or delay of gratification. With a generally depressive mood and a personality that is markedly vulnerable to others' influence, her own sense of urgency may, at times, displace the attention or care she needs to give to her child. Her level of energy is poor and her motivation to sacrifice for the sake of her children is limited.
In October 2004, DYFS discovered that J.Z.R. had been residing in a home without heat or electricity for two weeks. Despite the living conditions, J.Z.R. was healthy and unharmed. Shortly thereafter, M.N.R. voluntarily entered into a case plan with DYFS, by which she agreed to attend counseling, parenting skills classes, and a GED program. In November 2004, DYFS referred M.N.R. to the Newark Family Resource Network for a parent aide. At a compliance hearing before the Family Part in December 2004, the court ordered DYFS to pursue a residential mental health program that would permit M.N.R. to maintain custody of J.Z.R.
In January 2005, M.N.R. began making daily visits to the DYFS office and behaving in an "erratic and anxious" manner. She told DYFS personnel that she would hurt J.Z.R. if DYFS did not take custody of him. By an emergent removal hearing on January 28, 2005, the Family Part granted DYFS's application for custody of J.Z.R. The court noted that M.N.R. had failed to comply with the vocational training program and the therapy provided by Beth Israel Behavior Health Center, and that she was refusing to take the medication prescribed by her psychiatrist.
At that time, DYFS was able to place J.Z.R. temporarily with a relative. As of March 2005, DYFS was attempting but unable to locate a residential treatment program that could accommodate both mother and child. The relative who was caring for J.Z.R. requested that DYFS place the child with a foster family because of M.N.R.'s aggressive and threatening behavior.
In 2005, M.N.R. began receiving mental health services from Medallion Care, but she failed to complete the program because of "an altercation . . . with the caseworker." In December 2005, DYFS referred M.N.R. for a psychiatric evaluation by Dr. Samiris Sostre, M.D. Dr. Sostre concluded that M.N.R. was suffering from depression, noting that symptoms of "irritability, poor frustration tolerance, and anger . . . have made it difficult for her to parent her son." He recommended reunification after M.N.R. overcame her depression through an adjustment of her medication, regular psychotherapy, parenting classes, and completion of GED training. DYFS referred M.N.R. to Reunity House for weekly therapeutic visitation with J.Z.R. and weekly group therapy. Subsequently, M.N.R.'s therapist expressed concern about her repeated tardiness.
In a February 2006 letter, M.N.R.'s clinician at Beth Israel Medical Center reported that she was attending outpatient sessions and improving her communication skills and anger management. At the same time, M.N.R. admitted that ...