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New Jersey Division of Youth & Family Services v. C.W.

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

October 18, 2013

C.W., Defendant-Appellant. IN THE MATTER OF N.D.R., a minor.


Submitted October 2, 2013

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Atlantic County, Docket No. FN-01-209-10.

Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Anthony J. Van Zwaren, Designated Counsel, on the brief).

John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Jennifer K. Russo-Belles, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for minor (Noel C. Devlin, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, on the brief).

Before Judges Grall and Waugh.


Defendant C.W. (Cynthia)[2] appeals the Family Part's June 21, 2012 order finding that she had neglected her son N.D.R. (Nick). We affirm the finding of neglect, but narrow the basis of the finding.


We discern the following facts and procedural history from the record on appeal.

Cynthia and D.R. (Daniel) are the parents of Nick, who was born in November 2008. The family came to the Division's attention through an anonymous tip in April 2010. Upon further investigation, the Division found a recent article in the Atlantic City Press concerning an incident of domestic violence at their home in the same month. The newspaper reported that Cynthia had stabbed Daniel and hit him with a frying pan. She was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and weapons offenses.[3]

A Division worker went to the couple's home, where she found Daniel and Nick. The worker reported that Nick was safe in his home, which she described as clean and comfortable. A family friend was assisting in caring for Nick. Daniel reported that he did not want to press charges against Cynthia, whom he believed was suffering as a result of the recent death of her parents. He also informed the worker that he believed she might be taking drugs and was in need of counseling.

The caseworker proposed a plan under which Cynthia would not be permitted to return home until she had started to receive services. Daniel did not want to sign the plan unless Cynthia, who was still incarcerated at the time, saw and also signed it.

The caseworker then spoke with Cynthia at the county jail. Cynthia reported that she and Daniel were sleeping separately, and that he always smelled of alcohol and motor oil. Cynthia told the caseworker that Daniel regularly abused her, but that, other than slapping her once, the abuse was verbal rather than physical.

Cynthia related that she "snapped" after she sensed Daniel standing over her while she was asleep on a couch. At the time, however, Daniel was actually asleep in his bed. Cynthia reported that she felt a growing rage, went to the kitchen to get a frying pan and knife, and then went to the bedroom. She hit Daniel on the head with the frying pan and dragged the knife across his throat. She then returned to the kitchen, got two more knives, and stuck them into Daniel as hard as she could.

The caseworker explained the proposed case plan. Cynthia agreed to leave Nick with Daniel after she was released, at which time she would sleep at her brother's residence. She agreed to sign the plan, as did Daniel when the caseworker met with him again. During her second visit, the caseworker observed that the home was well supplied with food, childcare items, and age-appropriate toys. Nick had his own crib.

The caseworker concluded that allegations of abuse for Cynthia against Nick were unfounded. However, she also concluded that Cynthia's violent behavior had exposed Nick to a substantial risk of injury, which warranted a finding of neglect. She recommended that the case be closed pending Cynthia's release from incarceration, at which time Cynthia would be in need of services.

Cynthia was released on bail on June 15. A second caseworker went to the home that evening, where she spoke with Daniel and Cynthia. She learned that Daniel picked Cynthia up at the jail following her release and brought her to their home. Cynthia told the caseworker that Nick was not present when the fight occurred and was never in danger. Daniel told the caseworker that the police had initiated criminal charges on their own, that he was not injured, and that Cynthia did not stab him, although she was holding a knife.

The caseworker saw Nick in the bath and observed no marks or bruises. Having concluded that there were no safety concerns after inspecting the home, the caseworker left.

On June 26, a different caseworker went to the home, where Cynthia was caring for Nick.[4] The caseworker observed that Nick was dressed appropriately and smiling. She characterized the home as immaculate and organized. The caseworker explained that the case plan signed by both parents required Cynthia to stay at her brother's home. Cynthia told the worker she did not want to leave the home but eventually agreed to do so. She made arrangements to live with her brother, who also agreed to supervise visits between Cynthia and Nick. The Division's plan was revised to include supervised visits and services for Cynthia.

The Division filed its initial Title Nine, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21 to -8.73, complaint seeking only care and supervision for the child on June 28. It was amended on July 9, at which time the Division also sought custody of Nick. The Division placed Nick with D.W., a family friend, who would also be evaluated for supervising parental visits. On August 17, the judge approved joint visits by the parents, supervised by D.W. On November 16, having received a satisfactory report from the parents' domestic violence counselor, the judge approved reunification with Nick.

In March 2011, the Division learned that Cynthia had left Nick with an individual known as "Doc" after she borrowed his car to visit Daniel, who was incarcerated on a non-support warrant involving a child from an earlier relationship. When Cynthia did not return that day to retrieve Nick, Doc contacted the Division, telling the caseworker that Cynthia had left only one diaper and a bottle with him. According to Cynthia, she spent the night at the jail hoping Daniel would be released. She informed the caseworker that she had left sufficient supplies with Doc.

The caseworker spoke to Nick. He said he was not afraid of anyone at the place he was staying, which the caseworker described as clean and appropriate. She observed Nick's diaper and clothing to be appropriate. Having found no problems, the caseworker recommended that the case be closed as unfounded.

There was a second referral later in March. D.W. alleged that Cynthia had dropped Nick off at her home, was using drugs, and went to the hospital due to a nervous breakdown. The Division's investigation revealed that Cynthia had admitted herself to a psychiatric facility for treatment of depression and cocaine use. Cynthia told the worker that she made plans for Nick to stay with D.W. while she was in treatment. She admitted that she had been using drugs while caring for Nick, that she had sold her television and computer to buy drugs while Nick was present, and that she and Daniel were behind in their rent ...

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