On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FN-07-365-11.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Grall, Simonelli and Accurso.
In this Title 9 matter, defendant M.J. appeals from the October 14, 2011 Family Part order, which found by clear and convincing evidence that she had abused or neglected the children of defendant K.R. pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21c(1), (2) and (4)(a) and (b).*fn2 Defendant contends the court erred in finding her guilty of abuse and neglect because the evidence did not establish she qualified as a "parent" under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21a. Defendant also contends the court lacked jurisdiction, and her involvement in this matter must be resolved in criminal court. We disagree with these contentions and affirm.
Because defendant does not dispute that the children were abused or neglected, we focus on the evidence relevant to whether she qualified as a "parent or guardian" under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21a. K.R. has two children: Karla, born in April 2004, and Samuel, born in March 2005.*fn3 K.R. had a third child, Karen, who was born in April 2003, and died on May 22, 2011, from complications of an unattended and untreated fractured femur, and severe malnourishment. The medical examiner ruled Karen's cause of death a homicide.*fn4
Defendant met K.R. at church and the two became friends. In August 2010, defendant moved in with K.R. and her three children. Defendant was in the home on May 22, 2011, when Karen died, as were K.R. and her other two children.
On May 23, 2011, caseworkers from respondent New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) spoke to Karla. According to the caseworkers, Karla identified K.R. as her "dark-skinned mother" and defendant as her "light-skinned mother," and said she lived with her "two mothers" and sometimes went outside with her "other mother," meaning defendant.*fn5 The caseworkers also reported that Karla said "both mothers" normally left the children alone in the apartment for long periods of time and put them in a room with soup, bread, and a bucket to use as a toilet; tied them to a radiator; dragged and carried them around the apartment because they could not walk; fed, home-schooled and taught them Bible studies, and bathed, and slept with them; and physically disciplined them. Karla included defendant in a picture she was asked to draw of her family, and said she feared defendant because defendant would hurt her. According to the Division's pediatrics and child abuse expert, on May 23, 2011, Karla said that "both Mommies" would hit the children with objects.
The caseworkers spoke to Samuel on May 24, 2011. According to the caseworkers, the child said that "the mothers" would tie the children to the radiator all day when they left the apartment and that "both mothers" would hit the children with objects.
K.R. told a Division caseworker that defendant lived with her and the children, and she trusted defendant to discipline and spank them. She also confirmed that defendant was present in the home when Karen died.
Defendant told a Division investigator that she lived with K.R. and the children. She described the children's daily activities in which she participated, and admitted she helped bathe, care for, discipline, and wash the children's clothing, cooked for and taught them, hit them with objects, and tied them to a radiator.
The trial judge concluded that defendant qualified as a parent or guardian under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21a. The judge found that no one other than K.R. and defendant cared for the children, defendant assumed the children's care "for at least several months," she bathed and participated in the children's normal activities, and physically disciplined and abused them. The judge determined that the ...