NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF CHILD PROTECTION AND PERMANENCY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
M.E.Z. and R.Z., Sr., Defendants-Appellants. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF M.R.N., JR. and R.Z., JR., Minors.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 22, 2013
On appeal from New Jersey Superior Court, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-170-12.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant M.E.Z. (Theodore J. Baker, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant R.Z., Sr. (Alan I. Smith, 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 minors M.R.N., Jr. and R.Z., Jr. (Hector Ruiz, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
Before Judges Reisner, Ostrer, and Carroll.
Defendant M.E.Z. appeals from the judgment of the Chancery Division, Family Part, entered January 16, 2013, terminating her parental rights to her two sons, M.R.N., now age eleven, and R.Z., Jr., now age three. Defendant R.Z., who is R.Z., Jr.'s father, appeals from the same order which terminated his parental rights to his son. M.N., the biological father of M.R.N., executed a voluntary surrender of his parental rights on August 6, 2012, and is not part of this appeal.
On these appeals, which we have consolidated, defendants contend that the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (Division) did not prove by clear and convincing evidence the four prongs of the best interests test. N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). The Law Guardian supported termination before the trial court and, on appeal, joins the Division in urging us to affirm.
Based on our review of the record and applicable law, we are satisfied that the evidence in favor of the guardianship petition adequately supports the termination of defendants' parental rights. See, e.g., N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 279 (2009) (holding that a reviewing court should uphold the factual findings respecting the termination of parental rights if they are supported by substantial and credible evidence in the record as a whole). Accordingly, we affirm.
Judge Linda G. Baxter set forth the underlying facts in a comprehensive oral opinion. To summarize, the Division first became involved with the family on September 23, 2005, after it received a referral alleging that M.R.N. was living in unsafe conditions with M.E.Z. and a friend. It was further alleged that M.E.Z. and her friend were smoking marijuana. The Division investigated the referral, and determined it to be unfounded. The Division then received six more referrals, many alleging incidents of domestic violence and/or substance abuse, between January 2006 and October 2010. The Division investigated all of these referrals and found that there were no concerns as to M.R.N.'s safety; hence, it did not establish supervision or services for the family. Additionally in September and October 2010, the Winslow Township Police Department (WTPD) responded to the home of M.E.Z. and R.Z., who were now married, for domestic disputes. The police investigated the matters and made no arrests.
In December 2010, January 2011, and March 2011, the WTPD was again called upon to investigate allegations of domestic violence between M.E.Z. and R.Z. In December 2010, R.Z. told police that he and M.E.Z. were arguing because M.E.Z. wanted a divorce, and M.E.Z. threw a book at him. At that time, R.Z. went to police headquarters to apply for a temporary restraining order against M.E.Z. In January 2011, the police responded to the treatment center where M.E.Z. was receiving treatment for back pain, and M.E.Z. stated that she and R.Z. were arguing over everyday issues. R.Z. left before the police arrived. In March 2011, police responded to defendants' residence and met with R.Z., who told the officers that he and M.E.Z. got into a verbal argument, and that M.E.Z. began to hit his vehicle with a shovel until he left for work.
In April 2011, the Division received a referral from the WTPD. Specifically, R.Z. was holding his son, R.Z., Jr., while under the influence and in possession of narcotics when the police went to the home on April 7, 2011, to execute an arrest warrant for R.Z. on a charge of vehicular homicide, which had occurred in August 2010.
Based on this incident, on April 8, 2011, the Division implemented a "safety plan" for the children, whereby M.E.Z. would not allow the children to have any contact with R.Z. until the Division completed its investigation. Within a few days, M.E.Z. violated this plan by allowing M.R.N. to sleep in her home while R.Z. was present. The Division removed both children from M.E.Z. and R.Z.'s care, and placed them with their respective paternal grandparents.
The Division then implemented a reunification plan pursuant to which M.E.Z. and R.Z. were to undergo substance abuse evaluations, substance abuse counseling, domestic violence counseling, and individual and marital counseling. M.E.Z. and R.Z. ultimately failed to significantly comply with these services. M.E.Z. suffered from a number of psychological episodes, and engaged in several acts of domestic violence against R.Z.
On July 20, 2011, R.Z. attended a court-ordered psychological evaluation with Ronald S. Gruen, Ed.D. Dr. Gruen indicated that R.Z. was sincerely interested in parenting his child and stepson but there were some issues interfering with achieving that goal, such as a shaky marriage, financial problems, M.E.Z.'s psychological problems, and previous substance abuse. Dr. Gruen also reported that R.Z. admitted to violating the safety plan. Dr. Gruen was in favor of family reunification following R.Z.'s completion of marriage counseling, drug education and treatment, parenting skills classes, and individual therapy.
A few days later, on July 22, 2011, R.Z. reported an incident of domestic violence, alleging that M.E.Z. assaulted him. R.Z. indicated that M.E.Z. threw an object which struck him over his left eye. The police investigated and spoke with M.E.Z., who admitted throwing divorce papers and a full plastic water bottle at R.Z. M.E.Z. was then served with a temporary restraining order, following which she immediately returned to the residence and assaulted R.Z. again. R.Z. reported the incident to the WTPD, but told them that he did not want M.E.Z. to go to jail.
On July 26, 2011, R.Z. was referred for domestic violence counseling. M.E.Z. was also referred to a domestic violence counselor with the Camden County Women's Center.
On August 2, 2011, a fact-finding hearing pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15 to -20 was conducted before Judge Octavia Melendez. Judge Melendez found that "defendants, [M.E.Z. and R.Z.] are unable to safely care for the children due to their history of domestic violence and substance abuse problems." Both defendants refused to take drug screens in court, which resulted in a negative inference against them. The Division was granted care, custody, and supervision of M.R.N. and R.Z., Jr.
In August 2011, M.E.Z. also underwent a psychological evaluation by Dr. Gruen. Dr. Gruen reported that M.E.Z. admitted to past domestic violence incidents and problems with R.Z., and believed R.Z. was lying and cheating on her. Dr. Gruen concluded that M.E.Z. had significant emotional problems, such as bipolar disorder, marital problems, and borderline traits, but that she was "motivated to be a good mother." He further concluded that M.E.Z. "loves and cares about her children, " but is "overwhelmed by her emotional problems and her marital instability" and needs treatment. Dr. Gruen believed reunification was appropriate, but that ...