On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, FG-15-64-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 15, 2011 -
Before Judges Carchman, Baxter and Nugent.
Defendant L.S. appeals from the March 25, 2010 Family Part order that terminated her parental rights to two of her children, B.G.-S. and J.G.-S. The children's father, W.S., executed an identified surrender of his parental rights to both children on September 8, 2008.*fn1 L.S. argues that the Division of Youth & Family Services (DYFS) failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence the four criteria for terminating parental rights set forth in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). We agree with the trial judge that DYFS clearly and convincingly established all of the statutory prongs. Accordingly, we affirm.
DYFS first became involved with L.S. in 1991 when it received referrals about the deplorable living conditions in which L.S. resided with her first two children, twin daughters.
The referrals continued after the birth of L.S.'s third child, a son, J.G. L.S.'s father was eventually awarded custody of those children, and he placed the twins with a maternal aunt. He subsequently returned J.G. to L.S. DYFS closed its file on the twins and J.G. in 1998.
In 2000, L.S. married W.S., who suffered from bi-polar disorder. During the next five years, L.S. and W.S. had two children, a son, B.G.-S., and a daughter, J.G.-S. DYFS became involved with L.S. and her family in 2005, approximately one month after J.G.-S. was born.
In April 2005, DYFS received a referral alleging that W.S. was abusing L.S. and that the family was living in squalor. The responding caseworker found the family's apartment messy but not unsanitary. The caseworker could not confirm that W.S. had abused L.S. Two months later, however, on June 25, 2005, police arrested W.S. for assault after he admitted throwing L.S. to the ground, strangling her, and threatening to kill her. The police notified DYFS, and L.S. told a caseworker that W.S. had also thrown a vacuum cleaner that nearly struck B.G.-S. In light of the danger W.S. posed to the children, the caseworker had L.S. sign a case plan and agree that she would neither permit W.S. to live with her nor leave W.S. alone with the children.
Throughout the remainder of the year, during their regular visits, DYFS caseworkers observed that L.S. would leave B.G.-S. and J.G.-S. in front of the television for hours, B.G.-S. strapped in his stroller, and J.G.-S. unattended in a bassinet. They also learned that J.G.-S. had not received timely inoculations.
DYFS referred L.S. for services that would provide her with the organizational skills necessary to keep her home and the children clean, and offered to assist L.S. in securing daycare services for the children so that she could care for her home and seek part-time employment. L.S. declined to place her children in daycare. DYFS also referred L.S. to a program that provided parenting skills training, household management training, and domestic violence counseling, but L.S. had little success with the program. Her counselor reported that she was more interested in having W.S. return to the home and made only minimal progress in improving her housekeeping and parenting skills.
L.S. underwent both psychological and psychiatric evaluations in 2005. The psychologist believed that L.S. was capable of providing for her children, but needed considerable support services to maintain a stable environment for her family. He recommended that she undergo psychiatric evaluation, domestic violence counseling, parenting skills training, and marriage counseling. The psychiatrist believed L.S. suffered from moderate psychiatric problems including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks; and that she displayed poor judgment by failing to protect her children from W.S.'s violent behavior.
Throughout 2006, L.S.'s pattern of behavior, non-responsiveness to DYFS services, and neglect of her home and children continued. During periodic visits, caseworkers noted that L.S.'s apartment remained in a dirty and cluttered condition. A family therapist reported that B.G.-S. frequently acted out and bit the back of his hands when he was frustrated, angry, or anxious. L.S. continued to keep J.G.-S. in her playpen for hours at a time, and refused to give her older son, J.G., medication for his attention deficit disorder. In February 2006, B.G.-S. required stitches in his scrotum after falling on a nail while he was under L.S.'s supervision outside of the home. Family Preservation Services reported that on one occasion, L.S. failed to contact a doctor after finding blood in J.G.-S.'s stool, and that L.S. had also been hitting her older son and B.G.-S.
In May 2006, L.S. was evicted from her apartment, and she and the children became homeless. A DYFS caseworker found the family, dirty and hungry, in a shopping center parking lot and took them to a shelter. DYFS provided L.S. and her children with airplane tickets to Florida so that they could live with L.S.'s mother. After the family went to Florida, W.S. joined them. DYFS closed its file on May 17, 2006.
In November 2006, DYFS received a referral that L.S. was back in New Jersey with her children living in a motel room in Forked River. L.S. later told a psychologist that she did not want to return to New Jersey with the children, but she was facing homelessness in Florida, and she could not receive the "help" in Florida that she could receive in New Jersey. During the ensuing months, DYFS caseworker visits to the motel room disclosed that L.S. was incapable of keeping either it or the children clean. The motel room was dirty and cluttered, and the children were neglected. On one occasion, when responding to a referral, a caseworker, accompanied by police, found the three children home alone; B.G.-S was strapped into a car seat in front of the television, and J.G.-S. was in her playpen. On another occasion, the caseworker observed J.G.-S. naked and confined to her playpen, and B.G.-S. with dried blood on his nose.
Meanwhile, contrary to the parenting plan that L.S. and W.S. had agreed upon, W.S. continued to live in the room with L.S. and her children. Although he denied living there, DYFS received referrals about his presence, and on February 6, 2007, during a surprise visit, a caseworker found W.S. hiding under the bed. When discovered, W.S. threatened the caseworker. The caseworker also learned that the family faced imminent eviction for non-payment of rent.
On February 8, 2007, DYFS removed the children and filed a verified complaint and order to show cause seeking care and custody of the children. At a hearing that same day, with the consent of W.S. and L.S., the court ordered that the children be placed under the care, custody and supervision of DYFS.*fn2
Following a fact-finding hearing on May 7, 2007, the court determined that L.S. had abused or neglected her children. Between then and March 3, 2008, the court conducted numerous compliance review hearings. On March 3, 2008, at the conclusion of a permanency hearing, the court approved DYFS's plan for termination of the parental rights of L.S. and W.S. followed by adoption. Two months later, on May 5, 2008, DYFS filed a ...