On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FN-02-96-11.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued: September 10, 2012
Before Judges Graves, Espinosa, and Guadagno.
C.G. (Courtney)*fn2 appeals from the Family Part's June 13, 2011 order, following a fact-finding hearing, determining she abused and neglected her then two-year-old daughter, R.S. (Reba), by becoming incapacitated while caring for Reba and by failing to seek appropriate treatment for severe anxiety. Because the record in this matter is inadequate to support a finding of abuse and neglect and the trial court relied on previously excluded hearsay evidence, we reverse.
Reba was born on December 27, 2007, to Courtney and E.S. (Eric). Courtney and Eric divorced, and Courtney married O.G. (Oscar) in June 2010. At the time the Division became involved with this family, Courtney resided with Oscar and shared custody of Reba with Eric.
During the evening of August 18, 2010, Oscar and Courtney argued about finances. After Oscar put Reba to bed, he went into the bedroom he shared with Courtney. As he entered the bedroom, Courtney was holding a bottle of Xanax pills and said, "How many of these will it take to kill me?" Oscar told her not to take the pills or he would call the police. Courtney then swallowed all of the pills in the bottle which Oscar estimated to be twenty to thirty pills.*fn3 Oscar called the police who responded and arranged for Courtney to be taken by ambulance to a hospital where she remained for several days. The police then notified the Division, who began an investigation.
On September 1, 2010, the Division filed a complaint seeking care and supervision of Reba due to the August 18 incident. At a hearing that day, Eric was awarded temporary custody of Reba who had been with him since the incident.
A fact-finding hearing began on February 14, 2011 and continued on April 15, 2011. The Division first called Jeffrey Sudol, one of the police officers responding to Oscar's 9-1-1 call. The Division attempted to introduce Officer Sudol's report of the incident, but defendant objected to statements contained in the report from Oscar who did not testify. The Division suggested that they were not introducing the report "for the truth of the matter asserted, but only to show what information was received to which [the police] responded." The court allowed the report for that limited purpose and excluded the hearsay portions.
Officer Sudol testified that Oscar was holding Reba when he answered the door. Oscar took Sudol upstairs to the bedroom where Sudol observed Courtney lying in bed with a half-empty beer can next to the bed and an empty pill bottle on a bedroom counter.
Courtney's speech was slurred and when the officers tried to interview her, she refused to answer questions and was uncooperative. Sudol observed her "grasping for support" when she attempted to walk.
Oscar held Reba while the police were in the home. At first, the child was calm, but became upset when Courtney began to argue with the police. Reba was then taken into another room out of her mother's line of sight, which further upset the child. Sudol testified that Reba remained calm for approximately five minutes after the police arrived:
During that time the child was quiet. As soon as [Courtney] began to become argumentative with us, and yell at us, and ask why we were there, as we attempted to inform her why we were there, she began to scream at us more and that's when the child started to become upset.
After Reba began to cry, Courtney attempted to take her from Oscar but the officers kept mother and child separated for the child's safety as Courtney was not stable on her feet.
Sudol's partner called a mental health crisis hotline and an ambulance was dispatched. When the ambulance arrived, Courtney refused to leave and the officers placed her in restraints. She was then transported to Bergen Regional Medical Center (Bergen Medical). The police shielded Reba from seeing the restraints put on her mother by keeping her and Oscar ...