On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division-Family Part, Union County, Docket No. FN-20-129-11.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: May 31, 2012 -
Before Judges Cuff and Waugh.
In this appeal, we review an order finding no abuse or neglect under Title Nine, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21 to -8.73. The trial judge held that the corporal punishment meted out by K.T. to her seven-year-old daughter S.T. was within her right as a parent to discipline her child. We reverse.
On June 7, 2011, the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) received a referral from a teacher at S.T.'s school stating S.T. had arrived at her kindergarten class with "bruises and marks on her arms, legs and buttocks." The teacher had not previously seen these marks on S.T.*fn1
An intake worker for the Division arrived at S.T.'s school to investigate the referral. S.T. told the intake worker that, on a Friday, K.T. had beaten her with a belt upon learning she had kissed a boy during class. S.T. also stated her mother made her spell the word "sorry" and continued to hit her with the belt until S.T. spelled the word correctly. S.T. did not recall how many times she was hit. The caseworker determined the punishment occurred on or about May 31, 2011.
S.T. also informed the caseworker that K.T. had instructed her to lie if anyone asked about the punishment. If she did not lie, K.T. would hit her again. S.T. informed the Division K.T. usually hit her with her hand. According to the caseworker, S.T. stated "on numerous occasions" during the interview she wanted to go to her aunt's house, rather than back to her mother's, because she feared K.T. would hit her again.
During a subsequent recorded interview, S.T. stated K.T. had hit her on her left and right arms, back, side, and buttocks, with the part of the belt that goes "around the waist." While K.T. hit S.T., K.T. asked, "Why are you sitting on that boy's lap? Why are you hitting?"*fn2 S.T. stated K.T. had hit her on three prior occasions, but she could not recall the dates. At the conclusion of the interview, S.T. said she did not know the difference between a truth and a lie, but stated her mother had told her to lie and knew that if she told a lie in school, she would get in trouble.
That day, the Division took nine pictures of S.T.'s arms, legs, back, and buttocks. The pictures, all admitted in evidence, reveal bruises on the child's right and left arms, back, buttocks, and right and left thighs. She also suffered lacerations to her buttocks and right outer thigh, probably caused by the prong of the buckle.
During a recorded interview with K.T., she conceded hitting her daughter with a belt for "a couple of minutes" because S.T. had been sitting on a boy's lap and had been disruptive in school. She asserted, however, that she had aimed for S.T.'s buttocks only, and S.T.'s squirming around during the incident caused the bruises on other parts of her body. K.T. also admitted to using a belt on other occasions to discipline her daughter. She denied, however, having told S.T. to lie about the punishment or having tried to hide S.T.'s bruises. When asked if she "realize[d] that what [she] did was wrong," she replied, "No, because that's pretty much how I was raised."
On June 9, 2011, the Division filed for and was granted custody of S.T.; physical custody was granted to the child's father M.H.*fn3 On September 7, 2011, the trial court held a fact-finding hearing. In support of its complaint, the Division introduced the video-taped interviews of K.T. and S.T. and the pictures taken during S.T.'s school interview. The Division and Law Guardian argued S.T.'s punishment, which left bruises, marks and lacerations on her body that were "visible and clear seven days [after the punishment]," constituted excessive corporal punishment under Title Nine. K.T. argued the punishment, which left "no permanent injury[,]" did not constitute excessive corporal punishment.
The trial judge found the Division failed to provide sufficient facts to substantiate any abuse or neglect. The judge stated:
[K.T.] was very alarmed that her child was exhibiting sexual behavior at such a young age, seven, . . . and she felt the best thing to do was to . . . show ...