NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, Plaintiff-Respondent,
J.T., Defendant-Appellant. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF M.J.T., Minor.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 14, 2013
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Cumberland County, Docket No. FG-06-31-11.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Gilbert G. Miller, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Lisa Puglisi, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Cynthia J. Schappell, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for minor M.J.T. (Noel C. Devlin, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, on the brief).
Before Judges Hayden and Hoffman.
Defendant J.T. appeals from a June 18, 2012 judgment of guardianship entered by the Family Part terminating his parental rights to his then two-year-old son, M.J.T. (Mark). Defendant contends that plaintiff New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence the requisite statutory factors to establish that Mark's best interests would be served by terminating his parental rights. Mark's mother, C.B.T. (Carol), made an identified surrender of her parental rights to Mark in favor of her maternal aunt, P.L. (Paige), on March 19, 2012. The Law Guardian supports the termination of defendant's parental rights.
In a cogent oral opinion, Judge Harold U. Johnson, Jr., addressed the standards governing termination of parental rights, N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a)(1) to (4), as well as pertinent case law, and concluded the Division had proven its case by clear and convincing evidence. After careful review of the trial record, we conclude the trial judge's decision is soundly based on substantial credible evidence of record, and, therefore, should not be disturbed on appeal. Accordingly, we affirm, substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Johnson in his oral opinion issued on June 18, 2012.
We derive the following facts from the trial record. Defendant and Carol began their relationship in 2006. At that time, defendant was already the father of two children, J.T. (Jane) born in 2005 and N.T. (Nick) born in 2006. When Carol became pregnant in 2008, defendant assumed that he was the father. On October 12, 2008, Carol gave birth to S.T. (Scott). Two days later, the hospital where Carol delivered contacted the Division and reported that a psychiatrist had evaluated Carol and found her incapable of caring for her baby due to mental health issues, including bipolar disorder and lack of compliance with medication.
Based on the belief that defendant was Scott's father, Scott was released to his care, to reside with him, his mother and his other two children. This arrangement was short-lived, however, as a Division case worker visited defendant's home on October 17, 2008 and found that defendant had left five-day-old Scott home alone. Defendant claimed that he had only left Scott alone for a minute or so to pick up his other children from the corner bus stop. The Division took immediate action to remove Scott, along with the other two children, from defendant's custody. The Division placed Scott with Paige and her husband.
Defendant and Carol married the following month. On December 1, 2008, Dr. Roger T. Barr conducted a psychological evaluation of defendant. Dr. Barr recommended relationship counseling for both parents, citing Carol's "signs of major psychopathology" and defendant's failure to recognize them as "grave issues." Defendant rejected any notion that Carol's psychological issues posed any problem.
On January 14, 2008, Dr. Edward Baruch completed a psychiatric evaluation of defendant; he listed "adjustment disorder with depressed mood" and "alcohol abuse" as his Axis I diagnostic impressions, and recommended counseling. During the evaluation, defendant noted that he was unemployed and had been living with his mother for almost three years.
Carol and defendant were then both referred to Carol Lang, a professional counselor and marriage and family therapist. Defendant started seeing her on January 23, 2009, and Carol a week later. Citing "their respective poor levels of psychological functioning, " Ms. Lang observed that marital counseling would be needed, as she found "neither partner . . . capable of sufficient self-control nor recognition of their own contribution to their ongoing individual, marital, parental, and familial problems."
Carol became pregnant with Mark in early 2009. On June 11, 2009, Ms. Lang told the Division that Carol reported verbal and physical abuse by defendant. On July 2, 2009, a Division caseworker reported that Carol called the Division "very upset and screaming at the top of her lungs." She said that defendant "forces himself on her" and "talks to her like she was trash[.]"
Defendant and Carol were referred to Community Treatment Solutions on August 9, 2009 for their reunification program. However, defendant was discharged from the program one year later because of his failure to demonstrate progress and for his abusive behavior toward the staff. On September 25, 2009, Ms. Lang called the Division to report an incident in which defendant "was out of control, " "loud, " and "insultive, " and stated that it would be "very dangerous" for defendant and Carol to be together. Ms. Lang discharged defendant from therapy on October 15, 2009, because he missed sessions and was verbally abusive and threatening to her. Ms. Lang noted that defendant never acknowledged responsibility for his angry outbursts, and denied responsibility for the neglectful behavior that caused the Division to remove Scott and his other two children.
On October 2, 2009, Carol told a Division caseworker that defendant "talks to her like she is dirt . . . called her stupid and said she was dumb and retarded." She showed the caseworker bruises on her back and reported that defendant tried to push her down the stairs. Carol stated that defendant sometimes hit her, and she was "tired of ...