NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
This opinion shall not "constitute precedent or be binding upon any court." Although it is posted on the internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R.1:36-3.
Defendant L.C. (mother) appeals from the May 4, 2016 Family Part judgment terminating her parental rights to her daughter, A.W. (Alice), presently three and one-half years of age.
The mother contends the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (the Division) failed to present clear and convincing evidence to sustain the judgment terminating her parental rights. We disagree and affirm.
We summarize the salient evidence. In March 2014, the mother delivered then six-month-old Alice to the police station, reporting she was giving up the child because she was too overwhelmed to care for her. Later in the day, the mother regretted her decision and returned to the police station to get the baby, but by then the Division was involved and executed an emergent removal of Alice and placed her in a resource home. In April 2014, Alice was placed in her paternal grandparents' physical custody, with whom she has lived since. The paternal grandparents want to adopt Alice. The baby's maternal grandmother was also considered as a resource home, but she did not have adequate space in her home. The maternal grandmother subsequently moved to North Carolina.
The court ordered the mother to submit to various evaluations and engage in a number of services. In 2014, the mother submitted to psychological and psychiatric evaluations, which revealed she is afflicted with serious mental health problems. The psychological evaluation showed the mother had clinically significant maladaptive personality traits, and her overall ability to parent was compromised. The psychiatric evaluation revealed the mother had a history of hallucinations and exhibited symptoms of paranoia.
The mother was ordered to participate in individual therapy and comply with all treatment recommendations, which included taking anti-psychotic medication. The mother attended only ten of the forty therapy sessions scheduled. She briefly took psychotropic medication, but ceased because it made her feel tired. For the balance of the litigation, the mother maintained there was nothing wrong with her and, thus, she did not need medication or psychotherapy. She did complete parenting classes, and she also visited Alice until March 2015, when she moved into the maternal grandmother's home in North Carolina.
In July 2015, the mother returned to New Jersey with her six-week-old twins. The twins' father is Alice's father. In September 2015, the Division removed the twins from the mother's care because she was not taking her medication or participating in therapy and was putting the twins at risk for harm. The twins were placed in their paternal grandparents' home, where they have lived since.
The mother submitted to another psychological and psychiatric evaluation in 2016, as well a bonding evaluation. The paternal grandparents also participated in a bonding evaluation. Carla Cooke, Ed.D., who conducted the psychological evaluation, testified the mother did not have the capacity to parent because of her mental health condition, which has produced psychotic symptoms and has resulted in a lack of insight and compromised decision-making. Dr. Cooke opined the mother's prognosis for change was poor.
Dr. Cooke, who also conducted the bonding evaluations, testified the evaluation of the mother and Alice revealed no bond existed between them. Dr. Cooke found the mother did not know how to interact with the child, and the child was not responsive to her at all. On the other hand, Alice had a "strong and secure" bond with the paternal grandparents, who were "very attentive to" and "very absorbed in" Alice. Dr. Cooke noted the paternal grandparents have created an environment in which she is thriving. Dr. Cooke opined it would do more harm than good if Alice were removed from her grandparents' care, because of her strong and healthy relationship with them, whom she sees as her psychological parents.
Samiris Sostre, M.D., who conducted both psychiatric evaluations, testified the mother has a psychotic disorder. Her disorder impairs her from interpreting emotional cues another may signal or from recognizing another person's needs, impeding her ability to care for a child. The mother even stated she does not feel any connection to the child. The doctor noted:
Dr. Sostre expressed concern about the mother's prognosis, given the mother's resistance to treatment. The doctor stated:
The mother did not testify, call any witnesses, or introduce any documentary evidence.
After weighing the evidence, the trial court set forth its findings in a lengthy oral opinion, concluding the Division established all four prongs of
On appeal, the mother contends the Division's proofs were insufficient to satisfy all four prongs in
When terminating parental rights, the court focuses on the child's best interests.
In reviewing a case in which termination of parental rights has been ordered, we remain mindful of the gravity and importance of our review.
However, this right is not absolute, as it is limited by the "State's parens patriae responsibility to protect children whose vulnerable lives or psychological well-being may have been harmed or may be seriously endangered by a neglectful or abusive parent."
Moreover, "the trial court's factual findings should be upheld when supported by adequate, substantial, and credible evidence."
As stated, we reject defendant's challenge the Division failed to meet each prong of
The mother's attack on the proofs undergirding the satisfaction of the statute's first two prongs suggests the judgment must be reversed because the mother neither harmed nor posed a risk of harm to the child.
Providing proof a parent has in fact harmed a child is not essential to showing the first prong has been satisfied.
Here, there was unrefuted evidence the mother suffers from a major psychiatric disorder that disables her from recognizing or ascertaining the needs of a child. There is no question such disorder will endanger the child's safety, health, or development. The second prong was satisfied because the mother is unwilling to eliminate the harm facing the child. She has spurned taking anti-psychotic medication and engaging in therapy. Proof of the mother's limitations and her resistance to treatment provide the requisite evidence to establish the first and second statutory prongs were met.
The Division offered a number of services to the mother. She completed a parenting course and visited the child when in New Jersey, but she did not consistently participate and ultimately refused to engage in therapy. She also refused to take psychotropic medication. The mother argues the Division did not help her find housing or employment. Even if this were true, and we do not suggest it is, the fact the mother did not secure stable housing or employment is not what underpins the decision to terminate her parental rights. The fact the mother suffers from a major psychiatric disorder that impairs her ability to care for Alice and her refusal to engage in any treatment is what drives the decision to terminate her parental rights.
The mother also argues that, at the time the trial concluded, an assessment of the maternal grandmother's home as an alternative relative placement was still pending. Thus, she contends the third prong was not satisfied. Here, the Division did explore both the maternal and paternal grandparents' homes after the child's removal in its endeavor to place Alice with a relative. The maternal grandmother's home was ruled out, but the paternal grandparents' home was found to be acceptable. After the maternal grandmother moved to North Carolina, the Division did seek an evaluation of her home, but as the Division's caseworker testified, this assessment was ordered as a "back-up" to the paternal grandparents' home.
By the time of trial in 2016, Alice had been living with her paternal grandparents for over three and one-half years, and during that time she developed a strong and secure bond to them. There was testimony her removal from their home would cause her harm. Further, Alice's siblings now live with the paternal grandparents. The "value of nurturing and sustaining sibling relationships" cannot be underestimated.
The Division appropriately considered and placed Alice with relatives,
There is unrefuted evidence the fourth prong was met; termination of the mother's parental rights will not do more harm than good. Finally, to the extent we have not addressed any of the mother's remaining arguments, it is because we found they lacked sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. See
In summary, because there was substantial credible evidence the best interests of the child justified termination of the mother's parental rights, we find no basis to interfere with the trial court's conclusion to enter the judgment of guardianship.