NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, Plaintiff-Respondent,
A.R.R. and W.R.S., Defendants-Appellants. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF G.R.R., a minor.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 11, 2013
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-81-11.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant A.R.R. (Albert M. Afonso, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant W.R.S. (Marc D. Pereira, Designated Counsel, on the briefs).
John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Andrea M. Silkowitz, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Kendra Andrews, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for minor G.R.R. (Nancy P. Fratz, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, on the brief).
Before Judges Fuentes, Simonelli and Fasciale.
In these consolidated appeals, the biological parents of G.R.R., a four-year-old autistic girl, challenge the final judgment of the Family Part terminating their parental rights to this child. Both parents argue the Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) failed to meet its burden of proof under the four-prong criteria established by the Legislature in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). Specifically, defendants argue the Division did not establish, by clear and convincing evidence, that G.R.R. suffered actual harm while in their custody, or that the termination of parental rights is warranted to protect G.R.R. from the risk of further harm to her safety, health, and natural development.
We disagree. The record shows the Division presented overwhelming evidence of defendants' parental unfitness and of their inability or unwillingness to provide a safe and nurturing environment for this special-needs child. We thus affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Stephen J. Bernstein in his oral opinion delivered from the bench on April 9, 2012. The following summary of the evidence presented at trial will provide a factual context to our legal conclusion.
At the time of this appeal, G.R.R.'s mother, A.R.R., was forty-six years old; at age fifty-five, her father, W.R.S., is nine years her mother's senior. Both parents were born in Puerto Rico. Although never married, defendants have lived together as a couple since approximately 1995. Their first child, a boy identified here as W.R., Jr., is now twelve years old. The Family Part terminated defendants' parental rights to W.R., Jr. when he was approximately three years old.
W.R.S.'s first cousin, Mr. R., was originally W.R., Jr.'s foster father. He adopted the child soon after the court terminated defendants' parental rights to the boy. Mr. R. is also G.R.R.'s foster father and wants to adopt her as soon as is legally possible. Mr. R's efforts would thus permanently reunite brother and sister as members of the same household.
In September 2009, approximately two months after she was born, the Division executed an emergency removal of G.R.R. pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.29 and 9:6-8.30, thereby taking physical and legal custody of the child. At the time of this intervention, both defendants had long been recipients of the Division's services. In fact, the Division first became involved with the family eight years earlier in February 2001, when W.R., Jr. was three months old. The Division responded to reports of A.R.R. hearing voices. This psychiatric crisis resulted in A.R.R. arming herself with a knife and going into a closet to investigate the voices. This episode is but one of many incidents of psychiatric problems exhibited by A.R.R.
The record developed before the trial court is replete with evidence documenting A.R.R.'s chronic and severe psychiatric illness. As a means of self-medicating or for other more nefarious reasons, A.R.R. compounded the problems caused by her mental health issues by abusing addictive pain medication and using illicit drugs. As a result, she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, opioid dependency abuse, and borderline antisocial personality disorder. She first exhibited symptoms of psychiatric disorder at age thirteen, when she made multiple suicide attempts.
A.R.R.'s life continued to spiral out of control after she gave birth to her first child, W.R., Jr., in 2000. She exacerbated her psychiatric problems by abusing heroin and methadone. The insidious combination of her mental illness and drug addiction also explains her involvement with the criminal justice system. She has been arrested and ...