NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, Plaintiff-Respondent,
M.H., Defendant-Appellant. IN THE MATTER OF A.H., a Minor.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 3, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FN-07-154-11.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (John A. Albright, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (Andrea M. Silkowitz, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Patricia Parker, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for the minor (Charles Ouslander, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
Before Judges Alvarez and Carroll.
Defendant M.H. appeals from the February 25, 2011 order entered after a fact-finding trial, determining by a preponderance of the evidence that she abused or neglected her young child, A.H. Specifically, the court found that M.H. placed A.H. at substantial risk of harm when she left the child unsupervised on a twin size bed without rails while fighting with another resident of the homeless shelter where she was residing. M.H. argues that the determination was not supported by substantial credible evidence, that at most her conduct was merely negligent, and that the judge erred by relying on documentary and hearsay evidence. The law guardian supported the finding of the trial court and, on appeal, joins the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) in urging this court to affirm. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.
We discern the following facts from the record. A.H. was born in late January 2010. Earlier that month, the Division became involved with M.H. when it received a referral from a social worker at Beth Israel Medical Center, where she was receiving prenatal care. Division caseworkers met with M.H. to investigate the report that she was "verbally abusive" to hospital staff, had suicidal thoughts, and threatened to discontinue her prenatal care. M.H. admitted to the caseworkers that she was once diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The Division connected M.H. with New Start, an agency that provides case management services to mentally ill patients. It also scheduled a psychiatric assessment for M.H. at UMDNJ. M.H. was amenable to the Division's recommendations. Following A.H.'s birth, the Division offered to provide her with home health aide services to ensure that the baby was properly cared for at home. An intake worker reported that M.H. was initially reluctant to accept these services, but eventually agreed.
The Division, however, continued to receive numerous referrals expressing concern about defendant's conduct and her ability to properly care for her young child. Tashira Glenn was the caseworker assigned to the case beginning in February 2010. Glenn testified that while assigned to the case she received ninety-seven referrals, most of which expressed parenting concerns. Several of the referrals appeared unfounded. Nonetheless, by March 2010, three different health aides had been sent to defendant's home, and the Division received a report that M.H. was refusing to let an aide into her apartment.
On September 20, 2010, the Division received a referral from M.H.'s therapist, expressing concern that M.H. appeared unstable. Glenn investigated, and upon arriving at M.H.'s apartment she noticed that M.H. had written on her neighbor's door "[M.H.] loves Luis. Fuck off." M.H. told Glenn she contacted the therapist because she felt "overwhelmed" and "needed someone to talk to." M.H. confirmed that she was considering adoption because she did not have support from family and friends. Shortly thereafter, the therapist again contacted the Division because M.H. was sending her abusive text messages. The Division subsequently referred M.H. to a psychiatrist, and M.H. agreed to seek treatment for her mental health issues.
On September 30, 2010, the Division received a third report from the therapist expressing additional concerns, prompting the Division to again investigate. When caseworkers arrived, A.H. was asleep in her bassinet, which she appeared to have outgrown. M.H. admitted that A.H. needed a new crib, but claimed she could not afford to purchase one. The caseworker offered to assist. At that time, A.H., appeared to be appropriately cared for, happy, and healthy.
On October 6, 2010, Dr. Andrew Brown, the therapist's supervising psychologist, wrote the Division out of "concern for the welfare of . . . [A.H.]." The basis of Dr. Brown's concern included M.H.'s psychiatric diagnosis of bipolar disorder, her repeated refusal of psychiatric treatment for her symptoms, and her tendency to "self-medicate" with alcohol. Based on his evaluation of M.H., Dr. Brown opined that A.H. was "endangered" while in M.H.'s physical custody.
On October 13, 2010, M.H. and her daughter were placed at "Project Solution, " a homeless shelter for mothers with children. On November 4, 2010, the Division received a report from Delores Wright, an employee of the shelter, advising the Division that M.H. had been discharged for "fighting" another resident. Wright reported that M.H. attempted to "use her baby as a shield" during the incident. Wright also stated that M.H. left the baby alone in her room for approximately thirty minutes while she engaged in the altercation.
When the Division learned of this incident, it initiated proceedings to remove A.H. from M.H.'s custody, specifically "because [M.H.] admitted that she left the child unattended and due to [M.H.]'s history." The Division located A.H. at the hospital where M.H. went to be ...