On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-0212-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 16, 2012
Before Judges Fisher, Waugh and St. John.
We review challenges to a Family Part judgment of guardianship terminating the parental rights of defendant A.T.K. and permitting the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) to secure her child's adoption. On appeal, A.T.K. argues the trial court's decision is unsupported by clear and convincing evidence. We disagree and affirm.
A.T.K. is the mother of Z.J.T.*fn2 born on April 18, 2009. She has two other children, S.K., born December 1, 2000,*fn3 and G.S.,*fn4 born December 21, 2010, who are not involved in this litigation. On April 28, 2009, the Division received an anonymous referral in which the reporter expressed concerns over A.T.K.'s ability to parent Z.J.T. According to the reporter, A.T.K. appeared at her doctor's appointment with Z.J.T. in a "backpack thing," and the reporter was concerned Z.J.T. was too small for the device and his head was unsupported. The caller further reported the child's skin appeared yellowish and that A.T.K. was feeding him formula followed by water. The Division entered into a Family Plan with A.T.K. that sought to encourage her to attend appointments and to help with obtaining housing and assistance, and with child management skills. This referral ultimately was unfounded.
On May 19, 2009, at 4:30 p.m., C.S., A.T.K's boyfriend, called the caseworker who investigated the April 28 referral, to inform her that A.T.K. had tried to suffocate and also shoved one month old Z.J.T., and otherwise acted strangely. The Division, after an hour of trying to reach A.T.K. by phone, was finally successful, and A.T.K. responded she was on a bus and did not know when she would be home. After the initial call, caseworkers experienced difficulty contacting A.T.K., and a supervisor finally reached her and arranged to meet her and Z.J.T. in Hillside. At the meeting, a caseworker questioned A.T.K. about the allegations reported by C.S. A.T.K. explained that she knew what she did was wrong. She explained that she was upset with her boyfriend and she took her fingers and held Z.J.T.'s nose closed. She could not remember for how long she did this, but Z.J.T. began crying when she removed her fingers. She also could not remember if she shoved Z.J.T. She further explained that she was alone when she did it and, when C.S. came home, she told him what she had done. C.S. told her she was unfit to be a mother. A.T.K. told the caseworkers that, at times, she believed this to be true and that she doubted herself as a mother. She stated that she felt overwhelmed and that while she loved her child, she thought it would be a good idea for someone else to care for him while she got herself together. When asked how she would feel if the Division obtained custody of Z.J.T., A.T.K. began to cry and responded she thought it would be for the best. The caseworkers then explained the Division would file for custody of Z.J.T.
On May 21, 2009, the Division filed for and was granted custody of Z.J.T. He was placed with a foster mother, who is now committed to adoption.
On September 23, 2009, at a compliance review, the court dismissed litigation as to C.S., continued custody with the Division, and ordered that A.T.K. undergo a neurological evaluation, remain compliant with psychiatric services, and obtain individual therapy.
The Division sought reunification, provided A.T.K. with parenting skills classes, parent aide services, psychological evaluations, neuropsychological evaluations, individual therapy, visitation with Z.J.T. and a bus pass.
The Division referred A.T.K. to Wise Women at Essex County Community College for parenting skills classes, which she completed. The Division also referred her to Apostles House for parenting aide, a program that she participated in on a weekly basis for seven months. Apostles House provided the Division with monthly reports on A.T.K.'s status. In June 2009, Apostles House advised A.T.K. to attend to her immigration matters, contacted American Friends Service Committee on her behalf regarding her immigration status, and referred her to parenting classes. In July 2009, the agency reported A.T.K. resided in Isaiah House. In September 2009, Apostles House reported A.T.K. was attending therapy sessions at Hyacinth Foundation, addressing her medical needs, taking her medicines, and that she had completed parenting classes. In October 2009, the agency reported A.T.K. was working on finding suitable housing, the parent aide completed and submitted an application for subsidized housing through the HOPWA housing assistance program, A.T.K. had been attending her medical appointments, and was attempting to address her immigration status. In November 2009, the parenting aide assisted A.T.K. with applying for social security benefits. In December 2009, the report stated that A.T.K. had not met with the parent aide as scheduled, she could not be reached, and they were closing their case with her.
The Division provided A.T.K. with weekly visitation with Z.J.T., which A.T.K. attended regularly. During these visits, A.T.K. would read to her son, change and feed him, and act in an appropriate manner towards him.
Dr. Elizabeth Grossier conducted a psychological evaluation of A.T.K. A report by the doctor concluded that A.T.K. did not currently present symptoms of psychosis, that the incident giving rise to removal resulted not from post-partum depression, but rather from A.T.K. being overwhelmed and unable to handle stress appropriately. She further concluded that A.T.K. had cognitive limitations resulting from an early-childhood head injury and that she had difficulty being able to identify her emotional state. Dr. Grossier also noted that A.T.K. was very motivated to get support and assistance with Z.J.T. and that she demonstrated the capacity to care for him.
In a second report, Dr. Grossier noted A.T.K.'s treating physician had diagnosed her with major depressive disorder and was looking into the possibility that she also suffered from HIV related dementia because she was reporting periods of blacking out. Psychological examinations revealed A.T.K. "typically vents upsetting feelings and overreacts to conflicts and difficulties." Dr. Grossier detected a "prominent theme of abandonment and mistrust of others . . . [and] an overriding sense of hopelessness and helplessness" in A.T.K. She concluded that the incident giving rise to this litigation "may have been related to a 'black out' or to feeling overwhelmed with anger towards her then paramour and lack of coping abilities to properly attend to [Z.J.T.]'s needs in that moment." At the time the report was written, Dr. Grossier concluded that it would be premature to give A.T.K. custody of Z.J.T. because of her reported "black outs." She recommended that A.T.K. undergo a neurological examination and that she consult with her infectious disease physician to determine whether she was suffering from HIV related dementia.
A neurological examination of A.T.K. revealed she had excessive delay in processing new or unfamiliar material, that she has difficulty engaging in independent and effective problem solving, that she had a "borderline to low average" IQ, and that she placed in the "mentally deficient" range on a test designed to uncover her level of understanding and awareness of social mores. Dr. Brown, the author of the report, concluded A.T.K. had slow cognitive processing and impaired executive functioning because she has difficulty conceptualizing solutions to problems in a timely manner. He also concluded that "[w]ith respect to parenting, the current results indicate that [A.T.K.] is ...