NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF CHILD PROTECTION AND PERMANENCY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
G.R. and M.A., Defendants-Appellants. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF A.P.R., A Minor.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 4, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Passaic County, Docket No. FG-16-60-12.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant G.R. (A-2757-12) (Peter Neely Milligan, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant M.A. (A-2758-12) (Gilbert G. Miller, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Andrea M. Silkowitz, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel and on the brief).
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for minor (Lisa M. Black, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
Before Judges Parrillo, Harris, and Guadagno.
Defendants M.A. (Martha),  and G.R. (George), the biological parents of A.R. (Alice), appeal from the January 30, 2013 judgment of guardianship terminating their parental rights to the child. In their appeals, which we have consolidated, defendants contend that plaintiff New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (Division) failed to prove each prong of the best interests test of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) by clear and convincing evidence. After reviewing the evidence presented to the trial court, and in light of prevailing legal standards and arguments presented, we affirm, substantially for the reasons stated by Judge George E. Sabbath in his thorough and well-reasoned forty-two page oral decision.
We derive the following facts from the trial record. Alice was born on December 1, 2009. Shortly after her birth, hospital staff grew concerned upon learning that both Martha and George had a history of schizophrenia. A staff member contacted the Division, and after an investigation, the Division determined that Alice was not at risk and closed its case.
Over the next few months, the Division received several additional referrals related to Martha and George. On December 13, 2010, the Division received an allegation that George struck Martha, gave her a black eye, and threw her medication into the street. The Division caseworker responded to Martha's apartment where R.A. (Rachel), Martha's mother, also resided. The caseworker found that "the family's living room area [was] completely full of the family's belongings [and] there was barely any room to walk." Martha refused to provide details surrounding the allegation of domestic violence. The Division ultimately concluded that Alice was not present during the altercation and there was no substantiation of neglect. The Division did recommend that Rachel allow the People Care agency (People Care) to assist in cleaning the apartment, and Rachel agreed.
On January 11, 2011, People Care contacted the Division, reporting that Rachel had not been providing consistent access to the apartment. The People Care worker also related that Martha had become physically aggressive with Rachel by throwing a jar of baby food at her. Martha also was verbally abusive toward Rachel's landlord. There were at least four more unsuccessful attempts by People Care to access the apartment in January.
In March 2011, the Division received a referral of alleged medical neglect stemming from Rachel's refusal to take Alice to the doctor. Later that month, the Division determined the apartment's physical condition posed a threat to Alice and initiated a safety protection plan with the family. Pursuant to the plan, Rachel and Martha agreed to allow People Care and the Emergency Child Abuse Program (ECAP) to service the apartment.
On March 25, 2011, the Paterson Police Department (PPD) contacted the Division after being alerted by a People Care worker that Martha threatened to harm the worker. Division caseworkers met PPD officers at the home. The officers told the caseworkers that they considered the home hazardous to Alice. The People Care workers explained that they came to clean the home but were not allowed in. The caseworker noticed that all of the food in the refrigerator appeared "dirty and spoiled, " a baby bottle of juice had "chunks of mold on the nipple, " food and bags of trash were scattered throughout the apartment, and a box containing vomit was found outside the bedroom.
The Division conducted an emergency Dodd removal and placed Alice in a foster home. At a pre-placement physical, Alice was diagnosed as physically delayed due to excessive periods spent in the crib.
Rachel, Martha, and George were granted weekly visitation with Alice. Rachel's visits were unsupervised, while Martha and George were supervised by the Division when visiting Alice. Although Martha visited Alice regularly, her visitation was temporarily suspended due to her behavior. As described by the caseworker:
She would think that people were talking about her, and she would yell at other people that were in the office and make claims that she was, that they were talking about her.
There was an incident where she threw a toy across the room, the waiting room and had to be escorted out by the Human Service Police.
George's visits with Alice were sporadic. Between April 2011 and January 2013, he visited Alice only three times.
Martha underwent a psychiatric evaluation with Dr. Samiris Sostre who diagnosed her with "acute symptoms of delusions and hallucinations consistent with schizophrenia." Dr. Sostre concluded that, based on her symptoms, Martha was "not fit to parent her child at the present time due to her symptoms of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a chronic psychotic disorder with guarded prognosis. [Martha] continues to experience symptoms of her disorder, despite treatment."
Rachel underwent a psychological evaluation with Dr. Eric Kirschner, who concluded that Rachel possessed "schizotypal qualities marked by odd speech, thoughts and behaviors." She had also been the victim of physical and verbal abuse by Martha and her former husband after which she repeatedly failed to protect herself from others' harm. She "failed to adequately address the safety and welfare of [Alice] from the harm posed by [Martha]. . . . [Rachel] lacked insight into the risk of harm that [Martha] posed to [Alice]." Dr. Kirschner recommended that Rachel establish independent housing, attend individual psychotherapy sessions, parenting classes, and, should Alice be placed in her care, that in-home supportive services be implemented.
The Straight and Narrow Family Success Center (Straight and Narrow) reported that Rachel had attended seven of ten sessions provided as part of its Incredible Years parenting program but had not completed the course, as attendance at eight sessions is required. Straight and Narrow reported that Martha had attended one session, and George none.
On August 3, 2011, Rachel began participation in Family Connections' Reunity House program (Reunity House), a program that incorporates therapeutic supervised visitation, parenting group, and skills training, as well as family and peer support. During the program's first phase, Rachel was supervised by a clinician during her interactions with Alice. Although Rachel made some progress in this program, there continued to be concerns as to her ability to care for Alice. A clinician's report summarizing Rachel's treatment indicated
[Rachel] has made improvements with her visitations such as talking to [Alice] more, showing emotions, and verbalizing minor direction. It appears that although [Rachel] meets [Alice]'s physical needs, there is a question whether she can fully protect her from harm. . . . ...