On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FN-12-261-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 6, 2012 -
Before Judges Carchman, Nugent and Maven.
Following a fact-finding hearing, the Family Part determined defendant K.B. had abused or neglected her fourteen-year-old biological son and her twelve-year-old adopted daughter when she went to the Dominican Republic for four days and left them alone in the family apartment. K.B. appeals from the July 23, 2009 confirming order, and from the February 9, 2011 order terminating the Title Nine litigation.*fn1 K.B. argues that the evidence presented by the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) at the fact-finding hearing*fn2 was insufficient to sustain the trial court's finding that she abused or neglected her children by leaving them alone while she spent four days in another country. Having considered defendant's arguments in light of the record and applicable law, we conclude that the trial court's decision was supported by sufficient credible evidence presented at the fact-finding hearing. Accordingly, we affirm.
The following facts were established at the fact-finding hearing, where DYFS presented the testimony of intake worker Dody Bullerman and permanency worker Margo Meskin, and introduced documentary evidence that included DYFS's investigation summary, screening summary, and case notes.*fn3
DYFS has twice received referrals concerning K.B. and her children: the first from K.B. herself, requesting services for her children; the second from a school counselor, reporting that K.B. had left the children alone.*fn4 On the first occasion, in October 2008, K.B. contacted DYFS and requested assistance for her son and daughter. K.B. was unable to provide childcare while working the night shift at her job because her "babysitter" had recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor and could no longer "baby-sit" the children. Additionally, K.B.'s daughter, who had been diagnosed with an adjustment disorder and communication disability, was neglecting her personal hygiene and acting out; and her son needed grief counseling to help him adjust emotionally to the death of his grandmother. K.B. did not feel comfortable leaving her daughter alone.
DYFS provided K.B. with telephone numbers for community resources, and she eventually found a person to care for her children while she worked at night. DYFS also arranged for appropriate evaluations of K.B.'s daughter, and was still involved with the family when it received the second referral.
DYFS received the second referral on Thursday, May 28, 2009, when a counselor from the children's school informed DYFS that K.B. had not been home for several days, no one was staying with the children, and J.B. was eating potato chips for dinner. DYFS intake worker Dody Bullerman and permanency worker Margo Meskin reported to the children's school and interviewed J.B. and B.B. J.B. told the caseworkers that her mother was in the Dominican Republic on vacation. B.B. confirmed that his mother was in the Dominican Republic on vacation, but said an adult named Michelle was staying with him and J.B., and that Michelle would be with them between six o'clock and seven o'clock that evening. B.B. could not, however, provide a last name, address, or telephone number for Michelle. When Bullerman asked B.B. for his mother's telephone number, he provided the number to an old apartment telephone that had been disconnected. When asked about his sister eating potato chips for dinner, B.B. said there was other food in the house, but J.B. preferred the potato chips.
Bullerman wrote down B.B.'s cellular phone number and said she would come to his home at seven o'clock that evening. Later that evening, when Bullerman arrived at the home and knocked on the door, B.B. did not respond. Bullerman eventually sent a text message to B.B.'s cell phone, threatening to call the police if he did not open the door. He responded to the text by immediately opening the door. J.B., who had been out playing, arrived home around eight o'clock. No adult was present. Because no adult was present, Bullerman contacted the children's grandfather, who said he was retired and could stay with them. He arrived within the hour.
When the grandfather arrived, he explained to Bullerman that he knew his daughter had gone to the Dominican Republic, but thought she had made childcare arrangements with "Ms. Michelle." He also said that had his daughter asked him to stay with the children, he would have been happy to do so. The grandfather agreed to a safety plan whereby he would remain with the children until their mother returned.
While in the apartment, Bullerman noted that there was food in the home, though most of it had to be prepared. B.B. said he had eaten chicken soup for dinner, and Bullerman observed his bowl in the living room. According to Bullerman, the home was disorganized and cluttered, but it appeared that B.B. had made "some" attempt to clean it. Before leaving, Bullerman asked B.B. why his mother had not ...