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New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. S.G.C.

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

July 19, 2013

NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, Plaintiff-Respondent, [1]
v.
S.G.C. and R.M.P., Defendants-Appellants. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF Q.S.C., Q.F.C., R.S.P. and Q.S.C., minors.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted May 7, 2013

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-82-11.

Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant S.G.C. (Beryl Foster-Andres, Designated Counsel, on the brief).

Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant R.M.P. (William J. Sweeney, Designated Counsel, on the briefs).

Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Andrea M. Silkowitz, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Thomas Ercolano, III, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for minors Q.S.C., Q.F.C., R.S.P. and Q.S.C. (Lisa M. Black, Designated Counsel, on the brief).

Before Judges Messano, Lihotz and Ostrer.

PER CURIAM

In these consolidated appeals, S.G.C. (Chase)[2] and R.M.P. (Polk) appeal from an order entered January 6, 2012 terminating their parental rights to their four children: daughter Q.S.C. (Emma) born December 24, 2002; daughter Q.F.C. (Rhonda) born May 15, 2004; son R.S.C. (Ray) born June 17, 2005; and daughter Q.S.C. (Sarah), born July 14, 2007. The parents separately argue the Division failed to meet its burden to establish the four prerequisites to terminating parental rights set forth in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a. We disagree and affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in Judge David B. Katz's comprehensive seventy-seven-page oral opinion issued January 6, 2012 after a seven-day trial in late 2011.

I.

The four children were most recently removed from their parents in August 2010. Despite a range of services provided, it was the third time that Chase and Polk demonstrated an inability to safely and properly care for their children. During the course of the Division's involvement with the family, it substantiated three instances of abuse or neglect by defendants.[3] One instance resulted in Polk's criminal conviction for fourth-degree child abuse or neglect.

Chase's ability to parent was impaired by cognitive and psychological limitations, as well as drug use. Polk had anger issues, engaged in criminal activity, and also used drugs. The two parents had unstable housing, and lacked reliable financial support. All four of their children had special needs, and the parents demonstrated an inability to appreciate those needs and to respond to them.

A.

The first removal — involving Emma, then twenty-two months old and Rhonda, then five months old — occurred on October 22, 2004. Chase, Polk and the children were living in a motel in East Orange. The Division received a referral four days earlier that Chase was a prostitute and Polk was selling drugs. During the Division's investigation, the motel clerk reported that Chase was a stripper who brought men back to the motel for short stays in various rooms. The Division staff observed that the parents lacked a crib for Rhonda, and learned they had not obtained her immunizations. The parents also lacked formula and proper food for the children.

When interviewed, Chase appeared cognitively disabled. Division staff later learned she was mildly retarded. She denied she was a prostitute, stating she was a dancer. Polk also vociferously denied selling drugs.[4]

Despite the Division's efforts to assist the parents in obtaining Rhonda's immunizations, the parents did not comply. Upon the Division's initial contacts and at subsequent meetings, Polk cursed, shouted, acted aggressively toward Division staff, and threatened at one point to blow up the Division's building. He repeatedly invited the Division to take his children. The children were removed and placed with their maternal grandmother. During the placement of Emma and Rhonda, Chase gave birth to Ray, who was permitted to remain with his parents.

After the parents received various services and Polk completed an anger management counseling program, the two older children were returned to their parents in October 2005. Chase was required to continue taking parenting classes, Polk agreed to receive substance abuse treatment, and the Division remained involved, and continued to provide services.

Meanwhile, Sarah was born in July 2007. By early 2008, it was clear that both Emma and Rhonda had significant learning disabilities. Their schools prepared individualized education programs (IEPs) for both of them. Determining the family was stable, the Division terminated its services in January 2008.

The second removal occurred six months later. During the morning of June 17, 2008, an East Orange police officer noticed Ray, then just three years old, unsafely sitting in a window. The officer discovered that Ray and Sarah, then an infant, had been left alone. According to the officer, the children were covered with feces; the apartment was in deplorable condition with trash strewn about; there were no clean clothes found to dress the children; and no food. Ray told the officer he was very hungry. Police cleaned and dressed the children, and took them to the police station. The older children were retrieved from school. All four children were dirty, and malodorous. Emma's front teeth appeared badly decayed.

Chase and Polk appeared a few hours later. Chase and Polk denied they had done anything wrong. Polk reacted loudly and aggressively. Chase claimed her brother was supposed to be watching the children, but had left them without notifying her. The Division did not interview the brother.

The incident led to a fact-finding hearing and a determination that both parents neglected their children. They were also indicted for second-degree endangering the welfare of children. Polk was later charged with terroristic threats arising out of an incident four months later. At a meeting at Division offices in October 2008 to report that they had been denied a particular subsidized apartment, Polk became irate, expressed anger at the Division and the housing agency, and threatened to "get [his] gun, load it up and come back."

In return for Polk's plea in January 2009 to fourth-degree abuse or neglect, the State agreed to dismiss an indictment and a separate complaint alleging third-degree terroristic threats. Polk was sentenced to two years of non-custodial probation. Notwithstanding his plea of guilty, Polk would later assert that Chase was at fault for leaving the children unsupervised, as he was at work.

Ray and Sarah were placed in one foster home and Emma and Rhonda in another. During their foster home stays, the older girls exhibited severe behavioral issues. They would alternate between being sweet and playful to being threatening, violent, aggressive, and disrespectful. Rhonda also displayed sexual behavior. They were placed in numerous foster homes. They required in-home counseling sessions. Ray and Sarah also had developmental delays.

The parents received services through Family Connections, including a supervised visitation program. Chase was initially more compliant with services than Polk. Program providers recognized Chase's progress, and motivation, noting she demonstrated an ability to manage the children during visits. Although Polk had admitted to smoking marijuana, he initially did not attend a Family Connections program related to substance abuse. Ultimately, his attendance became consistent and he successfully completed the program in May 2009.

Beginning in the summer 2009, the children began overnight visits with their parents. Emma and Rhonda reported in August 2009 that they "had sex" with their brother. Emma said her mother let her and Ray shower together and Ray rubbed his private part against her. Similar behavior occurred when Rhonda and Ray were in bed together. The children alleged they saw pornography on a computer at home. Polk admitted he saw a pornography website pop up on the computer while the children were using it and he immediately closed it.

Between October 28 and December 4, 2009, Polk was incarcerated on charges of third-degree unlawful possession of a weapon (a pellet gun), and impersonating a law enforcement officer. He was released on bail on December 4, 2009. He had been working as a uniformed security guard in a bar, but lacked the appropriate credentials to do so; he also lacked a permit to carry the weapon.

While the charges were pending, but after Polk's release on bail, the family was reunited in December 2009. The Bridge Family Protection Services (the Bridge) terminated services in January after providing almost thirty-one hours of services in seventeen sessions, because of defendants' missed sessions. In the termination summary, the Bridge noted that Rhonda and Emma continued to have behavioral issues with which Chase and Polk appeared ill-equipped to address; and Emma expressed a desire to return to her foster caregiver. The report concluded, "If the family refuses to accept assistance from outside services to ensure stability, the children's permanency and ability to flourish may be at risk." In January 2010, Rhonda was admitted to Newark Beth Israel Hospital for seven days after a psychiatric evaluation. Emma's behavior was reported as "regressed" around the same time.

Defendants were assisted by in-home aides, and continued to receive treatment and services from Family Connections. They resumed services with the Bridge in February 2010. The in-home aides reported in February through April 2010 that the house was clean, and the children were washed and fed. The parents completed the Bridge's parenting and communication skills program.

Family Connections reported that the family needed intensive support. As of April 2010, a Family Connections clinician reported continued work with Chase and Polk about improving communication, providing consistency, structure and limits for their children. She noted Rhonda and Emma had shown improvement in their "sibling dynamics" but Emma continued to struggle with her behavior.

Reflecting the children's behavioral issues, in April 2010, the Division received a report that the children, then ranging in age from two to seven, were seen throwing window blinds, which were lit on fire, out of the window to the floor below. The fire department responded. The reports variously stated that at the time, Polk was home asleep, or he was in the bathroom. In either case, the Division concluded, "According to the allegation base protocol, allegation of Inadequate Supervision Unfounded. The children not left unsupervised as Mr. [Polk] was inside the bathroom when the children lit the mini blinds on fire and threw them out the window." After obtaining assurances that the parents would child-proof the stove, the Division determined the children were safe in defendants' care.

In April and May, the parents' attendance at sessions with Family Connections became more sporadic. In mid-June, it was reported that "Ms. [Chase] has not made herself available for sessions since 5/4/10." Chase was also frequently absent from the home for days at a time, making Polk's parenting tasks more difficult. Chase expressed dissatisfaction with the assigned clinician. Family Connections intended to terminate services if the parents continuously failed to comply.

An in-home aide's report in July 2010, indicated the home lacked food, the children were hungry, and the home smelled of smoke and garbage. "Mr. [Polk] is normally in the bed or yelling at the children all day and Ms. [Chase] spends most of the day looking out of the window and neither parent has much interaction or takes the children outside to play." The aide also noted, "[T]here is little for the children to do in the house because they do not have any toys to play with or books to read." Also, Chase had a "hygiene problem and walk[ed] around the house dressed very inappropriately." The children's hair appeared unwashed and matted down. Later in July, both parents ceased contact with Family Connections. In-home aide visits were terminated after Chase refused to admit the aides into the home.

On June 20, 2010 Polk pleaded guilty to the pending charges of unlawfully possessing a weapon, and impersonating a law enforcement officer. He was sentenced on July 27, 2010, to three years of non-custodial probation.

The children were removed the third and last time on August 16, 2010. The Division received a referral that the children were left unsupervised. The referral was received around 9:30 a.m.; police arrived at the home at 9:57 a.m.; and Polk returned home about two minutes later, reporting that he had gone to move his car to avoid a ticket, and then to buy food for the children at the corner store. Polk said Chase had left the home the previous night and she was with a boyfriend. He expressed how difficult it was to parent the four children when Chase suddenly left the home for extended periods. Police noted the electricity was shut off. The Division substantiated neglect against both parents and removed the children.

After the children were removed, the parents had twice-weekly visits, which generally were positive. The children enjoyed being with their parents, and their parents acted appropriately with them.

In December 2010, the Division considered placing the children with relatives of Polk and Chase, but neither were willing to take the children. Around the same time, Ray was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder with features of oppositional defiant disorder. Then five years old, Ray did not recognize all the letters in the alphabet. The evaluation reflected he at times screamed, engaged in biting, and acted disobediently.

In November 2010, the court held a permanency hearing and found appropriate the Division's plan of termination of parental rights followed by adoption. The ...


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