NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES,  Plaintiff-Respondent,
C.L.R.R., Defendant-Appellant. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF A.D.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NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION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, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-106-12.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Thomas H. E. Hallett, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Michelle D. Perry-Thompson, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for minor A.D.R. (David R. Giles, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
Before Judges Sapp-Peterson, Lihotz and Hoffman.
Defendant, C.L.R.R. is the biological mother of A.D.R. (Alex), born to C.L.R.R. and A.S., on October 4, 2009. She appeals from a March 12, 2012 Family Part judgment terminating her parental rights to Alex and granting guardianship to the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (Division). On appeal, she argues the State failed to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that termination of her parental rights was in Alex's best interests. The Law Guardian supported termination before the trial court and, on appeal, joins the Division in urging us to affirm. Based upon our review of the record and applicable law, we are satisfied the Division proved by clear and convincing evidence the requisite statutory factors required to terminate defendant's parental rights. Accordingly, we affirm.
The trial occurred before Judge John A. Fratto. The Division offered its case file into evidence, without objection, as well as testimony from its caseworker Lyanna Torres and its expert, Dr. Linda Jeffrey, a psychologist. Defendant testified on her own behalf and offered no other witnesses.
The evidence from which Judge Fratto reached his decision revealed that in addition to Alex, defendant has two other biological children, Carrie, born February 22, 1998 and Henry, born October 18, 2011. Although the Division had been referred to the family in 2008, in connection with allegations of abuse or neglect related to Carrie, the allegations were unsubstantiated. However, defendant agreed to a safety plan, which among other conditions, provided that defendant would provide her children with a sanitary environment free from safety hazards, complete a substance abuse evaluation and attend the Center for Family Services (CFS).
In April 2010, police notified the Division that they had executed a search warrant and seized illicit drugs from a home where defendant and her children were living with defendant's sister, Kelly, and Kelly's boyfriend, W.F. The Division took no action at that time. However, three months later, police executed a second search warrant at the same residence and seized more illicit drugs. The Division conducted an investigation and learned that Kelly was facing eviction from the residence and that neither she nor defendant had any place to go.
Defendant agreed to a second safety plan, which provided that she would: (1) not permit W.F. to act as a caretaker for the children, (2) focus upon finding safe and stable housing, and (3) re-apply for New Jersey Family Care for Alex, who had recently been treated for a rash. Defendant failed to comply with most of the safety plan provisions. As a result, the Division obtained an order for care, custody and supervision of the children. Defendant's former husband, W.R., took physical custody of Carrie, who is his biological daughter, and Alex was placed in foster care. The order afforded defendant twice-weekly supervised visitation with Alex; required that she submit to a substance abuse evaluation and psychological evaluations; and mandated that she comply with all recommendations. Nearly identical terms were provided in a subsequent order to show cause, entered on August 18, 2010.
Over the next several months defendant was unable to secure stable housing, living briefly with friends and in area hotels. She missed scheduled visits with Alex, failed to attend Parent Resource Center intake appointments and missed two separately scheduled substance abuse evaluations
Defendant completed a psychological evaluation with Meryl E. Udell, Psy.D., on October 5, 2010, after which Dr. Udell opined defendant "demonstrated poor judgment in allowing her children to remain with her sister[, ]" as "her sister put [defendant]'s children at risk, and [defendant] should not have been so quick to entrust her children to her [sister] again." She further recommended that defendant participate in parenting skills classes, obtain stable housing, and develop a realistic plan for maintaining stable housing.
Following a factfinding hearing held on November 15, 2010, the court entered an order on November 30, 2010, continuing Alex in the Division's custody based upon its finding that defendant had placed her children "at risk of harm" by her continued presence in a home where she knew illicit drugs were present. The court's order required defendant to participate in a psychological evaluation, complete a hair follicle test, submit to random urine screens, attend parenting classes, cooperate with all services, and attend all scheduled visitations with Alex.
On January 25, 2011, defendant notified the Division she was going to be admitted to the hospital in February "so the doctors [could] try new medications to address her epilepsy." She informed her caseworker that she was living with family friends, was stable, and would like her children back. The caseworker reminded defendant she had yet to comply with court-ordered services, including hair follicle testing and parenting skills training. When defendant finally submitted to hair follicle testing, the results were positive for opiates, which defendant attributed to her hospital stay, alleging she had been prescribed Tylenol 3 with codeine for back pain.
On March 16, 2011, defendant advised her caseworkers she was pregnant with Henry. That same month, she failed to attend a scheduled visitation with Alex and a subsequent intake appointment with the Parent Resource Center.
On June 13, 2011, the court entered a permanency order approving the Division's plan to terminate defendant's parental rights to Alex, followed by adoption. The court found that defendant failed to complete drug treatment and parenting skills classes, and was unwilling to obtain "appropriate" housing.
On July 21, 2011, the Division filed a complaint for guardianship. At the initial hearing, defendant challenged the Division's provision of services. The court ordered the Division to provide defendant with $50 for substance abuse treatment. The court directed defendant to undergo psychological and bonding evaluations, to be performed by Dr. Jeffrey and to participate in the previously court-ordered substance abuse and parenting skills classes, submit to random urine screens, and to comply with all other recommendations.
Dr. Jeffrey testified she performed a battery of tests upon defendant, the results of which revealed that defendant was experiencing psychological tension, anxiety, and sadness based upon elevated scores on the anxiety and dysthymia scales, paired with defendant's reported health preoccupation, interpersonal alienation, emotional lack of control, and feelings of depression, emptiness, and hopelessness. She stated defendant's "profile raise[d] the possibility of denial problems related to drinking or drug use because individuals who show the profile that she generated typically report more involvement with alcohol or other drugs than [defendant] disclosed."
The doctor specifically opined that defendant's Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory score was elevated in "the . . . area of defensiveness so that there may be alcohol and other drug problems that [she] is not reporting." Further, she testified that defendant's responses "didn't reflect motivation to engage in treatment" and suggested "[s]he may be somewhat defensive and reluctant to discuss personal problems."
Based upon Dr. Jeffrey's clinical findings, she opined to a reasonable degree of psychological certainty that defendant suffered from dysthymia, which is a "low level chronic depression" or "mood disorder with adjustment disorder anxiety" resulting in "difficulties dealing with ordinary everyday adjustment behavior." Additionally, Dr. Jeffrey noted the possibility "there may be major depression present[, ]" defendant suffered from personality disorder not otherwise specified (NOS) with borderline and paranoid features, meaning she showed traits of more than one personality disorder, and scored as having a "serious impairment[.]" When questioned as to her overall impression of defendant, Dr. Jeffrey testified:
The opinion that I formulated based on [a] reasonable degree of psychological certainty, [and] based on . . . all of the information that I had available to me, was that she had adjustment mood d[y]sregulation and personality disorder problems that decrease parenting capacity, that she would be likely to display poor parenting judgment and emotional immaturity, [and] that she therefore is not prepared to provide a minimal level of safe parenting.
When asked whether it would be possible to successfully treat defendant's issues, and if so, how long it would take, Dr. Jeffrey stated "[i]t is certainly the case that an individual can go into therapy and learn to manage a chronic illness"[;] however, she stated that the critical inquiry is how the individual responded to professional advice and treatment in the past. To exemplify the point that defendant was not particularly responsive to treatment, Dr. Jeffrey, by way of example noted that defendant had been advised by her physician that smoking cessation was crucial to treating her asthma, yet she continued to smoke. Dr. Jeffrey commented:
You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make [it] drink is a very pertinent old statement in this case. Therapy is not magical. Therapists cannot wave a wand and have a person engage in behavior change. They have to do it themselves. And it is one thing when someone is much younger and able to perhaps point to . . . a reason why one is not able to manage the domains of an adult life. It is something entirely different when someone is in their mid[-]thirties. There are ...