June 27, 2012
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
DEFENDANT-APPELLANT. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF A.L.L.G., A MINOR.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-0140-11.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 16, 2012
Before Judges Fuentes, Graves, and J. N. Harris.
L.L., the biological mother of A.L.L.G. (fictitiously Alice), appeals from a judgment of guardianship dated June 7, 2011, terminating her parental rights to Alice.*fn1 The law guardian supports the termination of L.L.'s parental rights. After examining the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.
Alice was L.L.'s eighth child. Unfortunately, L.L. has a history of chronic mental illness. L.L.'s parental rights to six of the seven children she had before Alice were terminated. The exception is L.L.'s oldest son, who has reached the age of majority.
On November 23, 2009, the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division) received a referral from the Lourdes Health Center. The caller reported that L.L., who was pregnant and about to give birth, was involuntarily committed to the hospital's psychiatric unit and would be returned to the unit after her child was born. The caller stated that L.L. was involuntarily admitted to the hospital due to her "suicidal and homicidal ideations." Alice was born on November 25, 2009. Prior to her release from the hospital, Alice was placed in the care and custody of the Division based on L.L.'s longstanding mental health conditions and her involuntary commitment.
On December 23, 2009, L.L. completed a psychological evaluation with Larry N. Seidman, Ph.D. One of the purposes of the evaluation was to determine L.L.'s "capacity to safely parent her child." Dr. Seidman summarized his findings as follows:
Results of the present evaluation indicate that [L.L.] continues to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia and continues to be readily and unpredictably susceptible to breakdown under everyday stressors.
Further, her condition seriously impairs the quality of her thinking, judgment, and reality testing as well as her ability to manage her own life on anything resembling a consistent basis. Thus: it can be said with a reasonable degree of psychological certainty that her behavior and thinking is not sufficiently stable and predictable to recommend her to care for and protect her newborn child. Her prognosis for recovery is quite guarded.
Dr. Seidman also recommended a psychiatric evaluation "to determine an appropriate psychotropic regimen for symptoms of a thought disorder and possible manic episodes." That evaluation was conducted by Leon R. Rosenberg, M.D., on March 16, 2010. According to Dr. Rosenberg, L.L. "suffers from bipolar disorder or bipolar disorder with psychotic features," which requires medication; and she suffers from a "dissociative disorder," which requires "intensive psychotherapy."
In March 2011, Ronald S. Gruen, Ed.D., conducted a psychological evaluation of L.L. and a bonding evaluation "to assess the degree of relationship between mother and daughter." In his report dated April 1, 2011, Dr. Gruen noted that L.L. had been "in and out of psychiatric hospitals" and had been "diagnosed with serious psychiatric illnesses," including bipolar disorder with psychotic features, paranoid schizophrenia, and dissociative disorder. Dr. Gruen found that L.L.'s "overt symptomatology [was] ameliorated through medication." However, he also stated there were issues regarding L.L.'s "contact with reality" because she did not understand "why she lost custody of [Alice] or any of her other children." Ultimately, Dr. Gruen concluded that L.L. could not parent her child and that Alice "would be at risk if placed in [L.L.'s] care."
Dr. Gruen summarized the results of his bonding evaluation as follows: "There is no psychological bond between mother and child. The child has barely seen the mother for most of her life. The child would not suffer any emotional harm if parental rights were terminated."
Dr. Gruen also conducted a bonding evaluation to assess the strength of the relationship between Alice and her foster parents. The evaluation took place on March 15, 2011. At that time, Alice had been living with her foster parents for approximately six months. In his report, Dr. Gruen noted it was "too soon to talk about significant psychological bonding, but the process of bonding [was] progressing satisfactorily." Dr. Gruen stated that Alice felt "very safe and secure" in her foster home, and he concluded that Alice "would suffer significant psychological harm" if she was removed from the home.
Six witnesses testified during the one-day trial on June 7, 2011. The Division presented the testimony of Nikiya Beatty, the assigned caseworker; Vilma Ramos, the assigned supervisor; Dawn Brach, a supervisor formerly assigned to the case; and Dr. Gruen. In addition, L.L. and her friend, A.A., who was interested in adopting Alice, testified.
Beatty testified that Alice's first foster home placement was not "the best placement," and Alice began living with her current foster parents, who are committed to adopting her, in October 2010. According to Beatty, L.L. first mentioned A.A. as a possible placement for Alice in October 2010. However, an interstate investigation was necessary because A.A. resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the interstate assessment had not been completed at the time of trial.
Dr. Gruen's testimony was consistent with his psychological evaluation of L.L. and his bonding evaluations. He testified L.L. did not "even understand why DYFS was involved in her life." He also testified Alice "would suffer serious and enduring harm if she was removed from her foster parents."
When L.L. testified on June 7, 2011, she was forty-three years old. L.L. testified she lived alone in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and worked at a nursing home in Moorestown, New Jersey. She also testified she was receiving Social Security disability and was taking "Depakote, Risperdal and Klonopin" on a daily basis. When L.L. was asked whether she believed she was capable of caring for her child, she answered, "of course, I do."
The trial court found that the Division's witnesses were "very credible." It also found that the Division had proved all four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) by clear and convincing evidence. The court summarized its findings and conclusions as follows:
The Division met its burden in demonstrating that all four prongs of the best interest of the child standard have been satisfied. Under prong one, [L.L.'s] serious mental illness is dangerous to [Alice's] physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Several psychologists, including expert witness Dr.
Gruen, emphasize that [L.L.] is not able to effectively parent while she is battling her illness, and her attempt to feed her newborn baby cereal shows this to be true. Under prong two, [L.L.] cannot or will not eliminate the danger she poses to [Alice] by managing her mental illness. [L.L.] has an extensive history of noncompliance with medical and therapeutic recommendations and thus of relapses that have placed herself and her six other children in danger.
Further, even if [L.L.] were to control her mental illness temporarily by complying with medical recommendations, [Alice] would be placed at risk considering [L.L.'s] tendency for relapse. And removing [Alice] from the care of her foster family with whom she has formed a strong bond would cause the child significant harm.
With regard to the third and fourth elements of the statutory test, the court stated:
Under prong three, the Division has made reasonable efforts in their attempt to reunify [L.L.] with [Alice], by providing for psychological and psychiatric evaluations and treatment, home inspection, parenting classes, and visitation, but was unfortunately unable to achieve its goal of reunification. The Division also made efforts to process [A.A.'s interstate placement] application, but the . . . process was unfortunately too prolonged to be in [Alice's] best interest. Under prong four, terminating [L.L.'s] parental rights will not do more harm than good. [Alice] does not know [L.L.], and has not formed a bond with her. Instead, [Alice] has formed a bond with her foster family, the severance of which would cause significant harm. While "breaking of the bond between the child and his or her foster parents cannot, in and of itself, serve as a legally sufficient basis for a termination of a parent's parental rights" if the Division fails to satisfy the other prongs, the court finds that all four prongs are satisfied here. New Jersey Div. of Youth and Family Services v. D.M., 414 N.J. Super. 56, 79-80 (App. Div. 2010). It is therefore in the best interest of [Alice] that [L.L.'s] parental rights shall be terminated.
On appeal, L.L. argues that the Division failed to prove each of the four statutory factors necessary to terminate her parental rights under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) by clear and convincing evidence. We do not agree.
As the Supreme Court has noted, our "[r]review of a trial court's termination of parental rights is limited." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 278 (2007). "Appellate courts must defer to a trial judge's findings of fact if supported by adequate, substantial, and credible evidence in the record." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. G.L., 191 N.J. 596, 605 (2007). Trial courts hear the case and see the witnesses, and they are in a better position to evaluate the credibility and weight to be afforded testimonial evidence. Pascale v. Pascale, 113 N.J. 20, 33 (1988). Deference is not appropriate, however, if the trial court's findings are "so wide of the mark that the judge was clearly mistaken." G.L., supra, 191 N.J. at 605.
In this case, we have determined from our independent review of the record that the trial court's findings and conclusions are supported by clear and convincing evidence. As the trial court recognized, Alice is entitled to a safe, stable, and permanent home, which L.L. cannot provide. We therefore affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Angelo DiCamillo.