On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Sussex County, Docket No. FG-19-13-11.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 12, 2012
Before Judges Simonelli, Koblitz and Accurso.
Defendant J.S., the biological mother of A.J.S, born in October 2008, appeals from the August 1, 2011 Family Part order, which terminated her parental rights to the child.*fn2 On appeal defendant only challenges the trial judge's conclusion that the evidence clearly and convincingly satisfied prong one of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a -- that A.J.S.'s "safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship." Thus, we focus solely on the evidence relating to prong one.
In October 2008, respondent New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) received a report that defendant was pregnant and had used heroin, morphine, cocaine, marijuana and benzodiazepines during her pregnancy. Defendant was seventeen years old at the time and in the custody of the SusseX County Juvenile Detention Center because she had been adjudicated guilty of an offense which, if committed by an adult, would constitute simple assault. Prior thereto, she had assaulted and injured a female acquaintance.
A.J.S. was born prematurely and weighed 2.4 pounds, but did not test positive for drugs at birth or exhibit signs of withdrawal; however, she was deemed medically fragile and remained in the neonatal intensive care unit for two months, receiving respiratory support until she was healthy enough for discharge. The Division obtained custody of A.J.S. and, upon her discharge in late December 2008, placed her with a foster parent certified to care for medically fragile children with specific medical needs. A.J.S.'s present foster parent wants to adopt her, and there is undisputed expert evidence that the child will suffer severe and enduring harm if the two are separated.
A.J.S. remained in foster care from December 2008, until her reunification with defendant in September 2009. The reunification failed shortly thereafter in January 2010, when J.S. was ordered out of the "Mommy and Me" program at Straight and Narrow because she had assaulted a resident, fought with staff members, and failed to comply with the program's rules and regulations. In addition, defendant continued using drugs and alcohol, failed to attend substance abuse treatment programs, and engaged in domestic violence with J.M.S.
A December 2008 forensic assessment revealed that defendant had an extensive history of drug and alcohol abuse, relationship and emotional instability, anger management difficulties, and criminal and violent behavior. She was not remorseful for her violent behavior, and was at extremely high risk for relapse.*fn3
Testing revealed that defendant had avoidant, anti-social, and narcissistic personality traits, symptoms of depression, difficulty maintaining an adequate level of functioning, a pervasive apprehensiveness, a broad disillusionment with family and friends, recurrent anxieties, a general mood disharmony, unpredictability, an edgy petulance, negativism, a grandiose sense of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, and she was an angry, tense, sad, anxious, self-conscious and dejected teenager who lacked empathy, tended to be envious of others, and displayed enormous arrogance in her behaviors and attitudes.
Parenting skills testing revealed that defendant had an array of personal and interpersonal characteristics similar to characteristics of known child physical abusers. She was a high risk to be "overreactive, irritable, have a low frustration tolerance and poor impulse control;" she also had a high degree of personal distress and personal adjustment problems, and poor reaction to stress.
Defendant faults the trial judge for relying on the forensic assessment in finding that prong one had been satisfied. Defendant argues on appeal, in part, that the assessment predated the reunification, it only attempted to predict the future, it did not include evidence after December 2008 that she did not harm or pose a harm to A.J.S., and it was not relevant at the time of trial. The assessment, however, was not the only evidence in the record establishing prong one.
The Division's psychological expert, Mark Singer, Ed.D., evaluated defendant in April 2010, approximately three months after the failed reunification. His testing revealed that defendant disliked her life and had difficulty modulating affect, enjoyed using drugs, is a secretive individual who was experiencing depression mixed with social anxiety and feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, overly relies on the advice of others, seeks attention and approval, likely has a conduct disorder and difficulty adhering to limits placed on her behavior, is likely to have volatile relationships with others, and has some form of thought disorder. Dr. Singer concluded then that defendant's prognosis was poor ...