October 1, 2013
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, Plaintiff-Respondent,
L.G., Defendant-Appellant. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF N.R. AND S.R., minors.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 18, 2013
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FG-09-0114-12.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Rashaan S. Williams, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Andrea M. Silkowitz, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Jonathan Villa, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for minors N.R. and S.R. (Melissa R. Vance, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, on the brief).
Before Judges Fuentes, Simonelli and Haas.
Defendant L.G. appeals from the May 7, 2012 judgment of guardianship of the Family Part terminating her parental rights to two of her children, N.R. (Ned) and S.R. (Susan). She argues the Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) did not prove the four prongs of the termination statute by clear and convincing evidence. The Law Guardian supports the termination on appeal as it did before the trial court.
Based on our review of the record and applicable law, we are satisfied the evidence in favor of the guardianship petition overwhelmingly supports the decision to terminate L.G.'s parental rights. Accordingly, we affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in Judge Mark J. Nelson's thorough twenty-page written opinion rendered on May 7, 2012. We add the following comments.
The Division first became involved with the family in 2007, when it received reports that L.G. was not providing appropriate living conditions for her two older children, A.R. and J.R. Over the next two years, the Division monitored the situation and entered into a case plan with L.G. for the safety of the children. In June 2009, the Division received a referral from a hospital that L.G. was pregnant with twins. L.G. told hospital staff that she "could not take care of four children" and the hospital learned that she had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital earlier that year.
In December 2009, L.G. gave birth to Ned and Susan. The children had low birth weights and were placed in the intensive care unit. While visiting the children, L.G. dropped Ned on the floor and the child sustained a fractured skull. Susan showed signs of arrhythmia and was taken to another hospital for specialized care. Upon their release from the hospital, the children were placed in a resource home. They currently reside with a foster family, which plans to adopt them.
Ned suffers from pica, a disorder characterized by persistent and compulsive cravings to eat nonfood items. He requires constant supervision, together with biweekly behavioral and speech therapy and medical treatment for asthma. Susan requires speech therapy and medical treatment for her heart condition, sleep apnea issues, and asthma.
Psychiatric evaluations conducted over the next two years revealed that L.G. had an "I.Q. of 57" and her cognitive development was "within the mentally retarded range." L.G. was not able to understand the children's special needs and lacked the "intellectual capacity or insight" to address those needs. The Division continued to work with L.G. by arranging for psychotherapy sessions and child care training. However, because of the severity of her underlying condition, L.G. was not capable of caring for the children, especially in light of their special needs. Even during her supervised visits with the children, L.G. showed them little attention and would not interact with them. She also did not consistently attend any of the programs or services arranged for her by the Division.
During this period, L.G. tested positive for marijuana and the Division referred her for substance abuse treatment. However, L.G.'s two older children reported that she continued to use marijuana in their presence. She subsequently tested positive for opiates. She was later discharged from treatment for "excessive absences."
On April 9 and 10, 2012, Judge Nelson conducted a guardianship trial. Three witnesses were produced by the Division: adoption specialist Kimberly Shipmon; Division caseworker Lori Colon; and Karen Wells, Psy.D. L.G. did not attend the trial and no witnesses were called on her behalf.
Based upon the documentary record and the testimony produced during trial, Judge Nelson concluded that all four factors of the best interests test, see N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a), were satisfied by clear and convincing evidence. This appeal followed.
On appeal, L.G. argues that the Division failed to: (1) prove that the children were harmed by L.G.'s mental condition or drug use; (2) provide her with reasonable services to correct the circumstances that led to the children's placement outside of the home; and (3) demonstrate that the termination of L.G.'s parental rights will not do more harm than good. However, the record amply supports Judge Nelson's contrary conclusion that the Division satisfied each of the four factors of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a).
The judge fully detailed L.G.'s severe cognitive limitations and substance abuse, which prevented her from ensuring that the children would be safe if placed in her care. The judge also recounted the numerous services the Division provided to L.G. and her unwillingness to take full advantage of same. Although the Division did not conduct a "formal family team meeting" to discuss alternative placement plans, the judge explained the thorough manner in which the Division explored alternatives to the termination of L.G.'s parental rights, including the possibility of placing the children with relatives. Finally, Judge Nelson properly recognized that there was no bond between the children and L.G. and that they would suffer no harm due to the termination of L.G.'s parental rights. On the other hand, the undisputed expert testimony demonstrated that the children had a strong bond with their foster parents, who fully understood their special needs and were prepared to continue to address them.
The scope of our review of a trial court's decision to terminate parental rights is limited. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. F.M., 211 N.J. 420, 448-49 (2012). "Because of the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, " we accord deference to the trial court's fact-finding and the conclusions that flow logically from those findings of fact. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (l998). We are further obliged to defer to the trial judge's credibility determinations and the judge's "'feel of the case' based upon the opportunity of the judge to see and hear the witnesses." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.R.G., 361 N.J.Super. 46, 78 (App. Div. 2003) (citing Cesare, supra, 154 N.J, at 411-12; Pascale v. Pascale, 113 N.J. 20, 33 (1988)), aff d in part and modified in part, 179 N.J. 264 (2004).
When the trial court's findings of fact are supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence, they are binding on appeal. See Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974) (holding an appellate court is not to disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless they are "so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice"). Reversal is required only in those circumstances in which the trial court's findings are "so wide of the mark that a mistake must have been made." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 279 (2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
After appraising the record in light of the findings of fact contained in the trial judge's written opinion, we find nothing that requires our intervention. Judge Nelson carefully reviewed the relevant evidence and fully explained his reasons in a logical and forthright fashion.