On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FN-09-339-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Reisner and Hayden.
Defendant S.H. (Susan)*fn1 appeals from the August 6, 2010 Family Court order finding that she neglected her sixteen-year-old daughter A.M.D. (Ann). For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
The record reveals the following facts. On May 16, 2010, the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) received a referral, reporting that Susan had informed the caller that she was putting her daughter Ann and Ann's two-month-old son J.T. (Jon) out of her home. That day two Division investigators went to Susan's home and found Ann sitting on the front steps with Jon although she had a key to get into the house. Ann stated that Susan had threatened to "kick her out" the previous day, but Ann had called the police. Then, earlier in the day, Susan sent Ann a text message telling her she must go to a shelter.
During the interview with the investigators, Ann reported that she and Jon lived with her mother, her nineteen-year-old sister D.D. (Donna) and her fifteen-year-old brother E.D. (Elroy). Susan received Ann's SSI benefits and food stamps for Ann and her baby. Jon's nineteen-year-old father was incarcerated in New York. Ann also told the investigators that she did not get along with her sister Donna, that they had engaged in several physical altercations, and that Donna and Susan smoked pot almost every night. However, Ann said that she felt safe in the home and wanted to stay because she had no place to go.
Donna came home during the interview but refused to speak to the investigators. Susan then phoned Ms. Muir, the principal Division investigator, and stated that she wanted Ann to leave the home. Susan soon appeared and advised the investigators that she wanted Ann out of the house because the child was very disrespectful, cursed her, and would not follow any rules. For example, she stated that Ann and Jon's father had a physical altercation, during which he kicked in the front door.
According to Ms. Muir, "[Susan] was not willing to keep [Ann]. She wanted her out. She was pretty adamant about having her leave the house today - - that day." The Division offered to provide services to stabilize the family but Susan refused them. The Division had previously offered to provide services to the family through Perform Care, which would give counseling and other services to help them work through problems. Instead, Susan stated that "if [Ann] doesn't leave then I'm going to jail for putting my hands on her." At that point Donna said that they had the bail money ready. Susan at first denied, then admitted, that she smoked pot in the home. She also informed the Division that no family members were willing to take Ann into their home due to her behavior issues.
At that point in the interview, Susan and Ann began to engage in a heated argument. Considering everything going on in the home, Ms. Muir assessed the situation as dangerous for Ann and Jon and made an emergency removal of both minors. The next day, Elroy was interviewed in school, and he acknowledged that his mother and Ann did not get along. However, he stated that he was treated well and felt safe. As a result, the Division did not remove him from the home.
At the fact-finding hearing on August 6, 2010, Ms. Muir, the Division investigator, was the only witness. The Division argued that the mother could have accepted the services offered, obtained a restraining order against the boyfriend, and worked with the Division to find a "Mommy and Me" program for teenage mothers. The mother argued that she never harmed Ann or prevented her from remaining in the home but she was merely expressing her frustration and attempting to get help.
In her cogent oral decision following the hearing, Judge Margaret Foti stated:
The case presented today is one of a mother interacting with a sixteen year old daughter, who also has a . . . three month old baby, all under [Susan]'s roof. There is no question and it is very clear to me from the testimony and the record that this is a difficult child, a teenager who herself has ...