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New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. S.L.N.

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

November 22, 2013

NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
S.L.N., Defendant-Appellant. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF K.A.N., a minor.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted October 23, 2013 [1]

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-164-11.

Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Sigrid S. Franzblau, Designated Counsel, on the brief).

John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Andrea M. Silkowitz, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Melissa H. DeBartolo, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for minor (Suzanne M. Carter, Designated Counsel, on the brief).

Before Judges Grall, Waugh, and Accurso.

PER CURIAM.

Defendant S.L.N. (Susan)[2] appeals the Family Part's order terminating her parental rights to her son K.A.N. (Kevin), who was born in January 2003.[3] We affirm.

I.

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

Susan is the mother of five children, but only Kevin is involved in this appeal. Kevin has three half-siblings: twin sisters, who were born in November 1999; and Keith, who was born in March 2004. He also has a full-sister, who was born in January 2012. At the time of trial, Susan's other children were in the custody of plaintiff Division of Child Protection and Permanency. They are the subject of a separate abuse and neglect action.

The Division became involved with the family in March 2004, when Keith tested positive for cocaine at birth.[4] The Division substantiated neglect based on Susan's prenatal drug use.

The Division deferred removal of the children after Susan agreed to enter a residential drug-treatment program. Keith remained hospitalized, and the Division placed Susan, Kevin, and the remaining children at the Madison House shelter. Shortly thereafter, the shelter terminated Susan from the program because she violated its rules and regulations, was argumentative and rude to the staff and other residents, and was not attending the daily treatment sessions.

As a result, on March 26, the Division removed Kevin and his siblings and placed them in separate foster homes. Kevin, then approximately fourteen months old, was placed with A.S. (Andrea Stone) and her husband (collectively the Stones). He would remain in their care until he was reunified with Susan when he was three years old. The Division attempted to identify relatives or friends of Susan who could act as resources, but could not locate anyone willing to do so.

The Division offered Susan a variety of services, including parenting classes, referrals for drug treatment, parenting time, and psychological assessments. Susan complied with her substance-abuse treatment plan during April, but stopped attending her meetings shortly thereafter.

Gerard Figurelli, a psychologist, evaluated Susan in September. As of the time of the evaluation, Susan had been attending drug treatment and other services sporadically. She had worked for two weeks stocking shelves, earning $8.50 per hour. Susan told Figurelli that she and the children had lived with a friend, who asked her to leave. She was living with another friend at the time of the evaluation and had previously lived at the local YMCA.

According to Figurelli, Susan's test results indicated "narcissistic [personality] trends." He characterized the results as consistent with her use of drugs during pregnancy with Keith. Figurelli reported that Susan was unable to explain her failure to comply with the services offered by the Division.

Figurelli concluded that Susan lacked the ability to parent her children at that time and that she could not be trusted with their care until she completed her prescribed programs, secured stable and adequate housing, established a consistent source of income, and arranged for appropriate child care. Figurelli also recommended that Susan remain current with her HIV treatments.

By January 2005, Susan had tested positive for cocaine on two occasions. In March, the Family Part judge approved the Division's permanency plan of termination of parental rights and adoption by each child's respective foster parents. The Division continued to receive drug-related referrals concerning Susan and substantiated drug use on five occasions. She was still using cocaine as of mid-April.

Susan started cooperating with her drug treatment program in July, after which her service providers began to submit encouraging reports to the Division. Susan's progress continued through the fall. As a result, she was granted more frequent parenting time with the children.

In November, Leslie Williams, a psychologist, conducted an evaluation of Susan and her children. Williams also updated the psychological evaluation prepared by Figurelli. Williams reported that Susan and her children shared positive bonds and opined that reunification was viable.

[Susan] appears to be sincere about finally dealing with her substance abuse problem and has been compliant for the past six months. . . . [T]he children should be phased into her custody . . . . [Susan, ] obviously, needs to fully comply with all aspects of her treatment.

On November 14, the judge approved the Division's revised permanency plan to reunify Susan with her children at a facility that had recently provided shelter and other support services to Susan. The Division continued to monitor the family and provide services. The twins were returned to Susan's physical custody in January 2006, and Keith was returned to her physical custody in March, as part of a phased reunification. Kevin, then age three, was reunified with Susan in April.

After reunification, Susan allowed Kevin to continue his relationship with the Stones. She permitted him to stay with them over weekends, on holidays, and during the summer. Kevin began referring to the Stones as his godparents. They played such a significant role in his life that, when Kevin began exhibiting behavioral problems, Susan sought their assistance.

In October 2007, an anonymous caller alleged that Susan was not feeding or taking care of the children, was using most of her money to buy cocaine, and was exposing the children to domestic violence between herself and her girlfriend, G.P. (Gretchen). When questioned by a Division investigator, Susan admitted to fighting with Gretchen, but she claimed that they were no longer involved because Gretchen had been arrested and jailed. The Division did not substantiate the allegations against Susan, but did substantiate the allegation of physical abuse against Gretchen.

In May 2008, the Division received another referral after Kevin arrived at school with a cut on his lip. He told a school staff member that Susan had punched him in the mouth, and later told a Division investigator that she often used corporal punishment. Susan and the remaining children denied the allegations, and the Division determined the allegations of physical abuse to be unfounded.

There were at least five additional referrals between February 2009 and November 2009, including allegations that Susan was abusing her children and not providing them basic care; had resumed use of drugs and alcohol; was again exposing her children to domestic violence between herself and Gretchen; and had failed to protect Keith from physical abuse by Sam. However, the Division determined that all of the allegations were unfounded.

After Andrea Stone contacted the Division in 2009 to express concerns that Susan and Sam were neglecting and physically abusing Kevin, Susan became angry and discontinued interaction with the Stones. The visits resumed one month later, but were discontinued in January 2010 when Susan became angry with Andrea Stone again.

Susan admitted that she would occasionally "pop" Kevin's legs when he misbehaved, but denied wrongdoing in every other respect. The Division caseworker warned her that using physical punishment was inappropriate. From November 2009 through January 2010, the Division provided a parent aide to help Susan care for her children.

In March 2010, the Division received a report that emergency responders had found Kevin, then seven, alone and limping along on a public street. Kevin initially told them that he had fallen out of a tree, but later disclosed that he had injured himself jumping out of a third-floor window. He explained that Sam had whipped him the day before because he misbehaved in school and that he jumped out of the window because he feared that Sam would do so again. The Division removed Kevin from Susan for the second time.

When a Division investigator interviewed Kevin, he at first denied being hit by Sam or Susan, but later told the investigator that he was fearful at home because his parents hit him and his siblings with a belt. Kevin's siblings confirmed that Susan and Sam used corporal punishment and that Kevin was hit frequently for misbehaving at school. Kevin's doctors found two fractures in his right foot ...


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