On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Passaic County, Docket No. FG-16-32-11.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted April 23, 2012 -
Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez, Ashrafi and Fasciale.
Defendant C.T. appeals from an April 8, 2011 judgment terminating her parental rights to her adopted son, T.T. She argues that the judgment should be reversed because the trial judge did not set forth sufficient findings of fact and conclusions of law, as required by Rule 1:7-4(a), regarding the four prongs of the "best interests of the child" standard, N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). Alternatively, C.T. contends that the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division) failed to establish each prong of the best interests standard by clear and convincing evidence.
We conclude that the judge's decision "adopting" the summation arguments of the Deputy Attorney General (DAG) and the law guardian and allowing a psychological evaluation to "largely speak for itself with regard to the fourth prong" did not conform to the requirements of Rule 1:7-4(a), and was therefore inappropriate to support a judgment terminating the parental rights of C.T. Nonetheless, we recognize that T.T., who is now eleven years old, has a compelling need for permanency and stability in his life. See N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 610 (1986) (addressing the importance of permanence in the nurture of a child). To avoid further delay, therefore, we make findings and conclusions pursuant to our constitutional grant of necessary original jurisdiction and Rule 2:10-5. Pressler & Verniero, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 1 on R. 1:7-4(a) (2012) (citing Farmingdale Realty Co. v. Farmingdale, 55 N.J. 103, 106 (1969)); see also N.J. Const. art. VI, § 5, ¶ 3 (authorizing original jurisdiction "as may be necessary to the complete determination of any cause on review").
The record reflects that the Division established, by clear and convincing evidence, prongs one and two and the "reasonable efforts" requirement of prong three. However, we cannot complete the analysis because, as the law guardian argues on appeal, the judge did not consider whether kinship legal guardianship (KLG), N.J.S.A. 3B:12A-6d, presented a reasonable alternative to termination of C.T.'s parental rights, N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a)(3). We therefore affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for the judge to determine whether adoption is feasible and likely and, if not, whether KLG would be in T.T.'s best interests.
We derive the following relevant facts from our intensive review of the record.
T.T. was born in 2001, and pediatricians classified him as autistic with global developmental delay. At four weeks old, C.T. became his foster parent. She later adopted him at age two and a half. Until T.T.'s removal from the home, the two resided in a two-story home with C.T.'s elderly mother, E.T, who was eighty-six years old at the time of the guardianship trial.*fn1
On March 28, 2006, the Clifton police reported to DYFS that T.T. had run away from home and been found on Route 46. On April 5, 2006, the Division received a referral from the Clifton Health Department, but determined that the abuse and neglect allegations were unfounded.
On April 18, 2006, the Division received a referral that C.T. had been hospitalized for obesity, and that for the past week, E.T. had been caring for T.T. The referral stated that the home conditions were deplorable, and that C.T. slept in a recliner, was wheelchair bound, and was unable to care for T.T. After investigation, the Division determined that the allegations of abuse and neglect were unfounded. On June 21, 2006, May 29, 2007, and January 18, 2008, the Division received similar referrals but determined that the allegations of abuse and neglect were unfounded.
On February 29, 2008, the Division received a referral from T.T.'s school principal*fn2 stating that T.T. had run away and been picked up by police on Route 46. The principal further reported that C.T. stated that she "didn't call police because this has happened before and she knew that police would bring him home."
On May 14, 2008, the Division received a referral that E.T. was caring for T.T. because C.T. was hospitalized. The next day, a Division caseworker spoke to E.T.'s Adult Protective Services worker, who reported that the home was cluttered, and that E.T. cared for T.T. when C.T. was hospitalized, which was three to four times that year. E.T. confirmed that C.T. had been hospitalized since May 9, 2008, due to asthma and bronchitis. E.T. expressed difficulty caring for T.T. and maintaining the home. Later, the caseworker contacted C.T. at the hospital, and C.T. promised to address the clutter.
On May 20, 2008, the caseworker interviewed C.T. at home. C.T. reported that she was seeking assistance through Value Options and the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD). The Division referred C.T. to the Emergency Child Assistance Program (ECAP) and to a cleaning service. In August 2008, C.T. was hospitalized for two weeks due to asthma.
On October 23, 2008, the Division caseworker and a Division Child Health Nurse visited the home to assess the family's health and medical needs. They observed that C.T. had difficulty with mobility, and that T.T. was permitted to leave the house unsupervised and run down the sidewalk. C.T. stated that T.T. had run away before, and that she usually waited for him to return because she was unable to follow him.
The Division nurse expressed concern that C.T. was not properly attending to T.T.'s developmental and medical needs. She noted that C.T. had cancelled five appointments for T.T. to visit an audiologist. She also noted that in 2005, a neurodevelopmental consultant had diagnosed T.T. with pervasive developmental delays, pervasive autism, and speech and language delays, and had recommended that T.T. receive speech and language services, behavioral modification therapy, and occupational therapy. T.T.'s early intervention program, dated January 31, 2008, indicated that he was years overdue to see multiple medical professionals, including a hematologist,*fn3
ophthalmologist, and ear, nose and throat specialist.
On February 18, 2009, DYFS received a referral that C.T. could not ambulate to the bathroom, due to her obesity, and was instead defecating into buckets, causing a stench in the home. A Division caseworker visited and spoke to E.T., who stated that C.T. had been hospitalized for vomiting and headaches and admitted that C.T. was defecating into buckets. The caseworker observed that E.T. had difficulty moving around the cluttered home. The caseworker visited C.T. at the hospital, and C.T. admitted to using buckets. C.T.'s nurse stated that C.T. suffered from kidney stones, cellulitis, and cardiac problems. The Division substantiated C.T. for neglect because the "egress in the home [was] significantly obstructed with clutter . . . pos[ing] a significant safety and risk issue to [T.T.]" The Division noted that C.T. had a "history with [the Division] citing the same concerns."
In February and March 2009, the Division referred T.T. to the Youth Advocate Program and the Future Project for mentoring and recreation services. On March 6, 2009, an ECAP worker reported that C.T. had taken seventeen minutes to answer the door, and that she was still wearing a feces-stained hospital gown. The worker indicated that T.T. was very active, and that C.T. had been rushed to the hospital, but returned the same day.
On March 11, 2009, clinical consultant Heather Adams reported that she had met with C.T., and that C.T. was suffering from depression and was in denial about her medical problems. Adams recommended that C.T. submit to a psychological and psychiatric evaluation. Thereafter, the Division submitted a referral to Family Preservation Services for intensive in-home assistance, and C.T. began receiving ECAP services for four hours per day. Additionally, in April 2009, the Division approved approximately $2,100 to pay for a home cleaning service, which performed twenty hours of work, removed forty-five bags of garbage, and purchased twenty-four storage bins.
On April 23, 2009, at the Division's request, Dr. Samiris Sostre, M.D., performed a psychiatric evaluation of C.T. and issued a report. Dr. Sostre concluded that although C.T. denied symptoms of mood disorder and hoarding behavior, there were indications that she was suffering from such problems. She noted her "inability to supervise the child outside of the home [and] inability to keep a neat home, her hoarding behaviors, and the disarray in the home as well as her need to rely on her elderly mother for the care of the child." She also noted that C.T. "minimizes her own disabilities as well as the needs of her child," and that she "did not seem to acknowledge that she is relying on the help of her mother in caring for her son." Dr. Sostre recommended that an occupational therapist evaluate C.T. to assess her capacity to care for the specific needs of T.T.*fn4
On April 29, 2009, C.T.'s sister made a referral to the Division, indicating that E.T. had fallen in March, and that C.T. had not helped her up or called for medical assistance.
The sister reported that E.T. remained on the floor for two hours, until a relative arrived to assist. E.T. was taken to the hospital and treated for bruises on her back and shoulders.
In May 2009, C.T. was hospitalized again, this time for over two weeks. Later that month, a Division nurse reported that T.T. had missed his annual pediatric appointment, and had not seen a dentist or eye specialist.
In June 2009, the Division received a letter from ECAP, which had been monitoring the family with home visits for over a year. The letter expressed concerns regarding the deteriorating health of C.T. and E.T. It stated that C.T. was obese, had open wounds on her legs, and was unable to move from her chair. It noted that she would eat large quantities of food with ECAP workers present, that she was unable to digest her food due to immobility, and that she often became constipated or started to vomit, resulting in her being taken to the hospital. The letter also stated that C.T. did not address T.T.'s behavioral problems, such as kicking and pushing, and that no one chaperoned T.T. when he played outdoors. Further, the letter stated that T.T. defecated himself and smeared feces on the walls and carpeting. Photographs submitted with the letter showed piles of feces on T.T.'s bedroom floor.
In July 2009, C.T. was hospitalized again. Several days later, a Division caseworker inspected the home and observed feces all over the bedroom floors. The caseworker reported that E.T. had not been upstairs in two days to clean up the feces. On August 2, 2009, it was discovered that C.T. was administering three to four doses of Children's Triaminic Thin Strips Night Time Cold & Cough to T.T. every night for "itching."
On August 10, 2009, the Division filed a verified complaint for custody, care, and supervision of T.T. On August 26, 2009, the court granted the Division temporary custody, and T.T. was thereafter placed with his current foster parents. C.T. provided names of two relatives possibly willing to care for T.T., but both later declined.
In September 2009, Dr. Margaret DeLong, Psy.D., performed a psychological evaluation of C.T., which included administration of the Adult Adolescent Parenting Inventory, a measure of parenting knowledge and skills, and the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory, a self-report measure of mental health and personality functioning. Dr. DeLong observed that C.T. "minimized" T.T.'s needs as an autistic child and denied having trouble meeting his needs. She concluded that although C.T. "loves [T.T.] a great deal," she is "unwilling to recognize the serious safety, hygiene, and supervision problems" and "not capable of providing T.T. with adequate supervision and safety." She further concluded that "[d]ue to [C.T.'s] serious medical and health issues, these concerns are unlikely to significantly improve in the foreseeable future."
Dr. DeLong recommended that C.T. have supervised visitation with T.T., participate in parenting skills training, and maintain her medical appointments. Dr. DeLong also recommended that if T.T. was returned to C.T.'s home, it would require the presence of a ...