On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-100-11.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 13, 2012 -
Before Judges Graves, Espinosa, and Guadagno.
Defendant E.O. (Eric)*fn2 appeals the December 21, 2011 Family Part judgment terminating his parental rights to his daughter A.R.L.-O. (Amy). After careful review of the record and consideration of the arguments of the parties, we conclude that the trial judge's decision is based on substantial credible evidence. Accordingly, we affirm.
Amy was born to Eric and R.L. (Rhonda) on December 18, 2009. Shortly after Amy's birth, she began to display symptoms of drug withdrawal. Rhonda tested positive for benzodiazepine and methadone and subsequently admitted to using heroin, Xanax, Clonazepam and alcohol during her pregnancy.
The Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division) was notified and a caseworker visited the home where Eric, Rhonda and Rhonda's children from other relationships lived. The caseworker found the building was abandoned with no heat, electricity or hot water.
DYFS was familiar with these children, having investigated seven prior referrals for abuse and neglect, substantiating six of them. One of allegations involved Eric and was substantiated by the Division in 2009.
On January 8, 2010, DYFS conducted an emergency removal of Rhonda's children, including Amy. On January 11, 2010, Eric and Rhonda appeared at a hearing on the Division's order to show cause. The court granted DYFS custody of all four children, including Amy. In the order, the judge noted that "[Amy] is still in the hospital suffering from withdrawal." Six days later, Rhonda died. Upon Amy's release from the hospital, she was placed into a foster home.
Eric was ordered to submit to a psychological evaluation which revealed that he lacked the physical and emotional resources needed to parent Amy but concluded that with appropriate intervention, he might become a viable parenting option in the future. The evaluator recommended that Eric's visits with Amy be supervised. Eric was referred for drug treatment, individual therapy, treatment for depression and a parenting skills program.
DYFS evaluated Eric's mother as a potential placement for Amy, but ruled her out based on a prior drug conviction. DYFS also evaluated a maternal cousin who initially showed interest in caring for Amy, but later changed her mind.
On May 13, 2010, Eric submitted to a substance abuse evaluation. Eric admitted to a long history of drug abuse and mental health problems. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age sixteen and disclosed two recent suicide attempts, once before Rhonda died, in an "attempt to get attention from her," and a second attempt after Rhonda died.
The evaluator recommended an intensive outpatient program. Eric attended a program at Family Connections, but on June 3, 2010, he provided a urine sample which tested positive for cocaine, benzodiazepine, methadone, and opiates. His next twelve urine screens were negative for illicit substances.
At a July 8, 2010 compliance review, Eric was ordered to continue to comply with the recommendations of the substance abuse evaluator and submit to another psychological evaluation. He continued to enjoy supervised visitation with Amy.
On July 23, 2010, Eric tested positive for benzodiazepine, followed by three more positive tests in September 2010. In spite of his continued drug use, he managed to complete a court-ordered parent education program on September 16, 2010.
At a conference on June 22, 2011, the trial judge noted that Eric had made some progress but had not been able to remain clean and sober and could not provide adequate housing for Amy. At the time, Eric was living in a small studio apartment in a senior citizens' complex that did not allow children. DYFS attempted to help Eric find housing where he could live with Amy and he was placed on waiting lists at two complexes.
Eric's compliance began to decline in October 2010. He attended the Strong Fathers Program at Family Connections where he was receiving treatment including drug counseling, individual therapy, parenting classes and medication monitoring. He was expelled from the program due to inconsistent attendance.
He was then referred to the New Directions Behavioral Health Center for substance abuse treatment but refused to attend after learning he would have to ...