On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-129-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Grall, Simonelli and Koblitz.
S.M. and J.F. appeal judgments terminating their respective parental rights, and we have consolidated their separate appeals. Because the trial court's findings are adequately supported by the record and not clearly mistaken, we affirm.
Using fictitious names, the children whose best interests are at issue are: 1) Sam, born in May 1997; 2) Sue, born in April 1999; 3) John, born in November 2008; and 4) Judy, born in March 2010. S.M. is the mother of all four, and J.F. is the father of John and Judy. The fathers of Sam and Sue have surrendered their respective parental rights and are not participating in this appeal.
The trial court concluded that termination of S.M.'s and J.F.'s respective parental rights to these children is in their best interests. The Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) urges us to affirm those judgments. While the law guardian for Sam and Sue argues that termination of S.M.'s parental rights will do them more harm than good, the law guardian for John and Judy contends that termination of S.M.'s and J.F.'s rights to the younger children is appropriate.
S.M. and J.F. have another child, Jane, who was born in November 2005 and, along with Sam and Sue, removed from S.M.'s custody in September 2006. Their respective parental rights to Jane were terminated in 2008, and that judgment has been affirmed. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. S.M., Nos. A-6314-07 & A-1483-08 (App. Div. Sept. 4, 2009)(slip op. at 36), certif. denied, 200 N.J. 550 (2009). Although the Division also sought termination of S.M.'s parental rights to Sam and Sue in that proceeding, the judge concluded that it was not in the children's best interests at that time. He ordered the Division to continue to provide services to reunify S.M. with Sam and Sue.
Because Sam and Sue have been in the custody and care of the Division since they and Jane were removed from S.M.'s custody in September 2006, it is necessary to begin our discussion with facts addressed in our prior opinion. When the children were removed, J.F. was not living with S.M. Neither John nor Judy had been born.
Sam was nine, Sue was seven and Jane was one, when they were removed from S.M.'s custody. The removal followed the Division's investigation of a report that Sam was not attending school and S.M. was homeless. After investigating the report, the Division concluded:
Mother [S.M.] has no stable housing. She stays with various relatives until they ask her to leave due to her heavy drinking. Mother left baby [Jane] at a friend[']s house and forgot where she left [the] child due to heavy drinking. Mother left [Sam] with an aunt and made no plans to return for him or care for him. None of the children are enrolled in school.
The Division found additional evidence of neglect after the removal. Jane had an ear infection and a genital rash, and Sam and Sue had serious tooth decay. Sam and Sue also had serious mental disorders and resulting dangerous behavior, but those harms were detected in the months and years that followed their removal.
After the children were removed from her custody, S.M. admitted her alcoholism but denied abuse of any other substances. By October 2006, she was diagnosed as having an alcohol dependence disorder and found to exhibit symptoms of depression and behavioral problems. Counseling with aftercare and training to develop S.M.'s parenting skills were recommended.
The Division arranged for S.M.'s enrollment in an intensive outpatient program for substance abuse, but S.M. was dismissed for lack of attendance. Subsequently, S.M. missed intake appointments, and the Division arranged for her to participate in another program.
In January 2007, S.M. admitted that she had abused and neglected the children and was presently unable to serve as a parent. Eventually, S.M. also admitted use of PCP as well as alcohol.
Despite her admissions, S.M. did not attend a substance abuse program until the court approved the Division's plan to terminate her parental rights in September 2007. She then entered a twenty-eight day inpatient program, which she completed in November 2007. S.M. did well in that structured program, earning excellent ratings for attendance, participation and progress and never testing positive for any substance. For a time, she continued to do well in a highly structured aftercare program arranged by the Division.
The trial on termination of S.M.'s parental rights to Jane, Sue and Sam and J.F.'s parental rights to Jane was held in May 2008. The Division's experts were of the opinion that in light of S.M.'s long-standing addiction, her period of abstinence was too brief to permit safe return of the children. In addition, S.M. had not found a home for her children.
Similarly, J.F. was unable or unwilling to take responsibility for the care of his child, Jane. He was incarcerated for much of the period between the removal of the children from S.M.'s custody and the first termination trial. When he was at large, his failure to comply with conditions of his release resulted in his reincarceration. Following his release, he committed a new crime, failing to register as required by Megan's Law, and that conviction led to another term of incarceration. When released in March 2008, J.F. visited Jane, but he never offered to care for her, obtained employment or secured housing that ...