On appeal from the Division of Youth and Family Services, Department of Children and Families, Docket No. AHU 09-1698.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 10, 2012
Before Judges Parrillo and Maven.
Appellant R.S. appeals from a final agency decision by the Director of the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services*fn1 (Division) finding that, on January 28, 2008, appellant committed an act of child abuse as defined by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b) in failing to exercise a minimum degree of care by unreasonably inflicting excessive corporal punishment upon her grandson, Y.D. On appeal, we consider whether the grandmother's spanking of Y.D. with a belt, leaving a laceration on his forehead and bruise on his leg, constitutes "excessive corporal punishment" pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b). We affirm.
The facts adduced from the record reveal that Y.D. resided with R.S. and his father.*fn2 On January 29, 2008, the Division received a referral from the nurse from A.P. Morris Early Childhood Center reporting that five year-old Y.D. came to school with visible bruises and marks on his face, and that Y.D. told her that the previous day his paternal grandmother R.S. hit him in the face and legs with a belt. Barbara Ward, a Division caseworker, was assigned to investigate the claim and responded to the school.
Ward first interviewed Y.D. who stated that the night before R.S. hit him with the belt on his thigh and face, that R.S. hits him with the belt whenever he gets in trouble at school, and that R.S. has hit him with her hands before and "hits him hard." Ward examined Y.D.'s injuries and noticed a three-inch scar on his leg, bruises and swelling around his nose, and a one-inch cut on his forehead.
Ward spoke to R.S. when she came to the school to pick up Y.D. After initially denying any knowledge of the injuries, R.S. eventually admitted that she hit Y.D. with a belt because of his bad behavior at school. R.S. explained that while she was hitting Y.D. on his legs with the belt, he was accidentally struck in the face when he jumped away while she was swinging.
Ward also interviewed Y.D.'s teacher, Ms. Drefko, who described an incident involving Y.D. on January 22, 2008 when Y.D. threw a chair at other children in the classroom and pushed another classmate. As the principal called Y.D.'s home to report the incident, Y.D. tried to pull the telephone cord out of the wall and when R.S. arrived to pick him up, Y.D. hid under a desk and cowered behind his teacher. Although he had recently enrolled at this school on January 14, 2008, Y.D. had been suspended three times prior to the incident on January 22nd because of violent and aggressive behavior.
After the interviews, the Division initiated an emergency Dodd removal*fn3 of the child and placed him in foster care pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.29 and N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.30. Several days later, Y.D. was returned to the custody of his mother.
Y.D. was examined at Trinitas Hospital on the night of January 29, 2008. The medical report noted an "abrasion at [the] bridge [of the] nose and lower portion of forehead . . . with [three] areas of superficial scratches [at] the same area."*fn4
The report also noted "a small approx [one inch]" linear bruise to the inner left thigh."
At the conclusion of the investigation, the Division substantiated the allegation of physical abuse. R.S. appealed the decision. The matter was assigned to Administrative Law Judge James A. Geraghty (ALJ) as a contested case and a hearing was conducted. See N.J.S.A. 52:14F-6.
Ward, the Division's only witness, testified that Y.D. told her that his grandmother, R.S., hits him with a belt whenever he is bad at school, and that he is afraid to go home if he is bad in school for fear of getting hit. The child reported being hit in the face with the buckle of the belt. Ward described the injuries she observed on the child's forehead, nose, and leg. The Division introduced into evidence the screening summary, the investigation summary and photographs of Y.D.'s injuries. The investigation summary included a description of the injuries as "red marks and scratches on [Y.D.'s] forehead and his nose was scratched across his eyebrows. His nose appeared slightly swollen. He has a two-inch mark on the inside of his right forearm*fn5 . . . and a three-inch bruise . . . on his left leg above his knee." Ward testified that R.S. admitted to striking Y.D. with a six-inch-long plastic belt.
R.S. also testified at this hearing and admitted to spanking Y.D. with the six-inch-long plastic belt. She explained that after attempting various forms of non-contact discipline on many occasions, she spanked Y.D. because she believed nothing else had changed his behavior. Y.D. sustained injuries to his face because he "jumped away" as she was swinging. R.S. maintained that the slight injury to the face was accidental and insignificant.
She explained that the scars and swelling observed near his nose and right eye was due to eye surgery Y.D. received the prior year to repair the tear duct, and repeated infections near the tubes.*fn6 The ...