On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket No. FG-14-70-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fisher, Nugent and Carchman.
Defendant A.Z. appeals from a Family Part judgment terminating his parental rights to his three children. The children's mother, S.Z., entered into an identified surrender of her parental rights to the children so that their maternal grandmother could adopt them. We affirm.
Married in 1997, A.Z. and S.Z. have a daughter, Sally*fn1 , now twelve years old, and two sons, Noah and Michael, ages eight and five. When the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) became involved with the family in October 2008, Sally and Noah suffered from developmental, emotional, or other impairments, and required substantial attention and assistance. Sally was learning disabled and Noah was "globally delayed," suffering from attention deficit hyperactive disorder and autism. S.Z. largely ignored the children, and A.Z. worked from 7:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily, so he rarely saw them.
The Division first became involved with the family on October 28, 2008, after receiving a referral that the parents were neglecting and abusing the children. According to the referral, A.Z. had hit the children with a serving spoon and his hand; S.Z. had verbally abused the children; and the boys had sustained burns for which they had received no medical attention.
The next day, Division caseworker Ashley King interviewed Sally, Sally's teacher, and Sally's school counselor before proceeding to the family's apartment. When King and a co-worker arrived at the apartment, they knocked on the door several times before S.Z. told them to enter. S.Z. was sitting near the front door, but had not diverted her attention from her computer to open the door. The home had a foul odor and was dirty. The carpet was littered with food crumbs and the children's toys; the sink and toilet bowl in the downstairs bathroom were stained brown, and the floors had "a darker mold color"; the shower and tub in the upstairs bathroom had "a dark, mold[y,] dirty color"; and the walls were covered with the children's drawings. There was a gate to keep Noah out of the kitchen, but holes in the wall near the gate evidenced Noah's ability to push the gate out of his way and enter the kitchen.
More disconcerting than the condition of the home was the condition of the boys. Noah had burns on his wrist and back and a circular contusion on his right shoulder, which as he explained in single-word sentences, were caused by the stove, his sister, and a spoon. Michael, then age two but more articulate than Noah, had a bump on his forehead above the right eye, and burns under his chin and on his right wrist. Michael pointed to the burn marks and said "fire." When asked about her children's burns, S.Z. initially denied knowing anything about them. She subsequently explained that Sally had accidentally burned the children while using a lighter, then told a story about Noah turning on the stove. S.Z. was either on the computer or in the bathroom when the children were burned.
The Division workers prompted S.Z. to take the boys to the doctor, where they were diagnosed with second-degree burns that were healing. During the visit, Noah was screaming, hitting Michael and S.Z., and throwing books. He did not respond when S.Z. told him to stop.
Caseworker King testified at trial that S.Z.'s lack of supervision of the children was evident when she and a nurse visited the home the following day, October 30, 2008. While King and the nurse were visiting, Sally asked to leave the home and play, and S.Z. told her to be back by 6:00 p.m. Later that evening, when King and the nurse were leaving, they did not see Sally. They found her helping another woman with gardening. The woman did not know S.Z. and did not know where Sally lived.
King also observed Michael climbing on a desk to get cream that was used for his eczema, while S.Z. ignored him; and observed that Noah, who despite his age was not toilet trained, had soiled his pants and remained in them because S.Z. made no attempt to change his clothes. King directed her to do so. King also watched Noah push the kitchen gate out of his way so that he could enter the kitchen, where he carried on until S.Z. gave him food. A.Z. was hardly ever at home because of his work schedule.
Based upon the burns suffered by the children and the safety issues raised by S.Z.'s lack of supervision, the Division substantiated a finding of neglect against S.Z.*fn2 and thereafter removed the children from the home. The Division placed Sally and Noah with their maternal grandmother, C.G., and Michael with his paternal grandparents.
The Division served S.Z. and A.Z. with a notice of emergency removal. On November 5, 2008, the trial court signed an order that, among other things, placed the children under the care, custody and supervision of the Division; recited the Division's assessment "that without constant and intensive in-home supports, the mother is unable to maintain a safe environment for her children"; and ordered A.Z. and S.Z. to show cause on December 4, 2008, why the order should not be continued. On December 4, the court continued the children under the Division's care and ordered that A.Z. and S.Z. undergo psychological evaluation.
It is unnecessary to review the services provided to S.Z. between the time the children were removed from their home and the day S.Z. entered into the identified surrender of her parental rights; however, her inability to develop adequate parenting skills has some relevance to A.Z.'s inability to recognize the harm to their children. S.Z. remained incapable of safely providing a nurturing atmosphere for her children. In January 2009, the Center for Evaluation and Counseling reported the results of cognitive assessments of both S.Z. and A.Z. The testing disclosed that S.Z. was "in the Extremely Low range of intellectual functioning," and demonstrated deficits in "comprehension, judgment, abstract reasoning, daily living skills, and problem-solving abilities." In addition, she "exhibited difficulties with processing visual information and organizing her adult responsibilities." As a consequence of those deficits, S.Z. had difficulty "comprehending her children's needs, maintaining an orderly house, and learning from service providers . . . ."
S.Z. made little or no progress with her inability to parent her children. At the guardianship trial in March 2011, two experts testified about S.Z.'s inability to parent. The Division's expert testified that S.Z.'s "prognosis for acquiring adequate parenting capacity through any form of therapy, counseling, education, or training is regarded as very low." The expert retained by the law guardian testified that due to S.Z.'s many deficits caused by her level of cognitive functioning, she could probably care for her children "for an hour here and there." The expert did not believe that S.Z. was capable of "negotiating the needs of the three children unsupervised for any extended period of time," but believed her "lack of motivation to challenge herself emotionally or intellectually . . . [was] entirely consistent with a mental age of 9-10 years [old] . . . ."
Following the removal of the children from their home, the Division arranged for A.Z. to receive services that included parenting classes, individual therapy, psychological evaluations, and therapeutic supervised visitation. A.Z. was assessed by a forensic team for the Center for Evaluation and Counseling in December 2008 and January 2009.
The report of the forensic team's assessment stated that A.Z. was "an unmotivated and cognitively limited adult who has lacked insight into the risk issues in his home due to these limitations. He failed to view the condition of his home as problematic or to recognize that he has been neglecting his children's medical, physical, hygiene and emotional needs."
A.Z. demonstrated a "lack of motivation to parent and . . . disinterest in household responsibilities." The report also noted that A.Z. had "failed to learn that the parenting techniques he use[d] were not successful as his children continue[d] to act in the same manner." Testing revealed that A.Z. possessed a "below average to average level of knowledge of appropriate parenting in comparison to the normative population," and that he had "a tendency to have a poor understanding of children's age-appropriate capabilities, and to treat children as confidantes and peers rather than as children." The forensic team determined that A.Z. was "in need of concrete parenting education services with repeated feedback and hands-on demonstration[,]" but that the "prognosis for learning is poor." The team was concerned, however, about A.Z.'s resistance to services, and his lack of understanding "that the services are needed." The team concluded that A.Z. was a "high risk parent for child neglect," and was "not viewed as an appropriate candidate to supervise his wife's parenting due to his inability to recognize child neglect."
A.Z. participated in a therapeutic supervised visitation program and parenting skills training. Those programs gave him considerable insight into the problems that led to the removal of his children, and improved his parenting skills. Despite those gains, clinicians at the program attended by A.Z. expressed concern in an October 23, 2009 report that ...