On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Gloucester County, Docket No. FN-08-154-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 8, 2012
Before Judges Fuentes, Ashrafi and Hayden.
Defendant-mother, E.H., appeals from the September 9, 2011 order of the Family Part terminating the abuse or neglect case against her and continuing legal custody of her son with his long-time, non-relative caregiver. Defendant also challenges the earlier March 23, 2011 order of the court finding that she neglected her then five-year-old child by leaving him alone on multiple occasions with her husband. We affirm.
The persons primarily involved in this case are:
* C.C., the child born in August 2004 and in the custody of his non-relative caregiver since the age of one;
* E.H., now E.C., the biological mother, who seeks to regain custody of her son after voluntarily turning the boy over to his caregiver;
* T.R., the caregiver who took legal custody of the child in August 2005, when neither biological parent was willing to care for him, has raised and cared for the child continuously since that time, and now seeks kinship legal guardianship of the child; and
* D.C., the mother's husband since June 2007, that is, the child's stepfather, who has been physically abusive when left alone with the child during the mother's parenting time.
The litigation involves inter-related Family Part cases for custody and kinship legal guardianship that were interrupted in March 2010 when the Division filed its abuse or neglect case under Title 9. The Division's involvement had begun much earlier, in August 2005, when the unmarried mother left the infant with the child's father and did not return for several weeks. The boy's father could not care for him, and he accused the mother of abandoning the child because of her use of drugs and other illegal activity. The Division contacted the twenty-one year-old mother, and she said she had no money to return to New Jersey from Philadelphia. With both parents' consent, an order was entered on August 16, 2005, granting custody of the child to the caregiver, who is not related to the child by blood but was the girlfriend or companion at that time of the child's maternal grandfather.
The August 16, 2005 order permitted each of the biological parents to have weekend parenting time. A child support order was also entered requiring that the mother pay $52 per week to the caregiver.*fn2 Two months after entry of the original custody order, in October 2005, the mother went to the caregiver's house and demanded to have the child back. The mother said she was going to Las Vegas and taking the child with her. The caregiver refused, and she also declined the mother's offer of $1,000 to relinquish custody. While the caregiver was briefly in a different room, the mother took the infant and attempted to flee in a taxi. The caregiver called the police, and the mother was arrested and charged with interfering with a child custody order. The Family Part suspended the parenting time of the mother as a result of that incident, and the child remained with the caregiver. No additional court orders were entered for almost two years.
In June 2007, the mother married her husband, and she gave birth to their child together several months later. In July 2007, the Family Part denied the mother's first application to regain custody of the older boy from the caregiver. However, the court granted the mother parenting time with the child two afternoons per week on the condition that she complete a drug rehabilitation program and that drug testing screens be made available to the court. The mother was compliant with those conditions and exercised parenting time.
In 2009, the mother applied again to the court for custody of her son. At about the same time, the caregiver filed a complaint seeking kinship legal guardianship of the child pursuant to N.J.S.A. 3B:12A-1 to -7. On October 23, 2009, while those two matters were pending, the court entered an order splitting parenting time between the mother and the caregiver, each having the child for about one-half the week. The October 23, 2009 order also directed that the mother not allow unsupervised contact between her husband and the child. That provision of the order was added because the husband had allegedly been aggressive and threatening during an incident at the child's school and the school had requested that the husband not pick up the child. The court order stated that the husband "shall not provide transportation or day care for the minor child; [the mother] is to be present for his contact with the child."
In November 2009, the mother violated the last-quoted provision of the order by leaving the boy alone with her husband while she went to work. Over the next several weeks, the boy reported to several adults that his stepfather routinely ...