NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF CHILD PROTECTION AND PERMANENCY, Plaintiff–Respondent, v. P.M., Defendant–Appellant. IN RE: N.B.O., a minor.
Defendant P.M. appeals from a Family Part order entered in this Title Nine action initiated by plaintiff, the Division of Youth and Family Services (Division).1 Following a July 9, 2012 trial, the judge issued a written opinion. She found N.B.O., P.M.'s sixteen-year-old daughter, was an abused or neglected child pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6–8.21(c), whose emotional wellbeing had been impaired by P.M.'s conduct and remained in imminent danger of future impairment. Specifically, the judge found P.M. emotionally abused N.B.O. by “threaten[ing], curs[ing], degrad[ing], and belittl[ing]” the child making “[N.B.O.] feel angry, sad, unloved, unwanted, worthless, and misplaced.” The regular verbal abuse had turned physical on at least two occasions and involved police intervention. Further, P.M. had “thrown [N.B.O.] out of the house [,]” beginning when she was thirteen years old, placing the child at a substantial risk of harm. A subsequent order, entered under a different docket number, granted a third-party custody of N.B.O. Thereafter, this action was concluded.
On appeal, P.M. challenges the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the trial judge's conclusions. We determine the arguments lack merit and affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in the trial judge's written opinion. R. 2:11–3(e)(1)(A). We add these brief comments.
During trial, the Division admitted into evidence redacted case-worker's interview sheets, without objection. Additionally, a recording made by N.B.O. in November 2012 capturing P.M.'s verbal abuse was played. P.M. testified in her defense. Finally, N.B.O. was interviewed by the judge in camera.
Although P.M. acknowledged the accuracy of the taped statement, and did not dispute its content which included her crude, debasing, and threatening statements that also suggested she would inflict violence against N.B.O., she asserted the conflict was situational and relational. P.M. justified her reaction was prompted by N.B.O.'s disrespect or defiance, and merely designed to teach N.B.O. she cannot do what she wants and must be accountable for her conduct. P.M. argued she always provided N.B.O. with food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and other necessaries, and could not be charged with neglect. Finally, she admitted the home's first floor windows were nailed or painted shut, and exits were blocked by furniture and other objects in the evening, but asserted this strategy was designed to prevent home invasions, not to detain N.B.O.
N.B.O.'s in camera statements were consistent with those she previously made to her school counselor and the Division. She explained much of her mother's anger was fueled by a rejection of N.B.O.'s sexual orientation.
Our review of the factual findings and credibility determinations made in a non-jury trial is limited. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 278–79 (2007). “The general rule is that findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence.” Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411–12 (1998). Importantly, however, the trial judge's “interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts” are subject to this court's de novo review. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).
P.M. seeks reversal of the determinations, arguing the judge's findings of emotional abuse cannot be sustained absent expert testimony of imminent impairment of the child's emotional condition. She further contends the facts do not demonstrate N.B.O. was abused or neglected, but rather merely reflect relationship tensions and P.M.'s legitimate attempt to discipline a rebellious teenage daughter.
We reject the notion that expert testimony was mandated to support the Division's claims. First, P.M.'s vile, vicious and hateful speech depicted in the tape recording far exceeds the bounds of discipline. Her remarks were designed to tear at N.B.O.'s self-worth and instill fear through intimidation and threats of violence. Second, P.M. did not refute she and N.B.O. had, on at least two occasions, engaged in physical altercations and she called police. Third, the record included counselor statements, Division interviews with N.B.O., and the child's responses to the judge's inquiries. Finding N.B.O. credible, the judge determined P.M., when angry, threw N.B.O. out of the house, sometimes without proper clothing or shoes. Fourth, P.M. displayed her anger and hostility when the Division workers first responded to the referral and in court. She screamed at the caseworkers, derided and yelled at N.B.O., and blocked the workers' attempted exit from the home because P.M. would not calm down. The judge described P.M.'s trial testimony as “very hostile.” Fifth, P.M.'s explanations of her conduct and minimization of the severity of her physical and verbal attacks were rejected as incredible. This was found not to be an isolated occurrence of P.M. losing control because of frustration, but a pattern of conduct and contact that continued to escalate as N.B.O. aged and began resisting P.M.'s negative treatment. The proofs are “synergistically related” and must be viewed collectively. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. C.M., 181 N.J.Super. 190, 201 (Camden Cnty. Ct.1981).
P.M.'s challenges represent nothing more than her disagreement with the credibility findings made by the court. We must afford particular deference to credibility findings because the trial judge “has the opportunity to make first-hand credibility judgments about the witnesses who appear on the stand [.]” N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. E.P., 196 N.J. 88, 104 (2008). See also M.M., supra, 189 N.J. at 278–79. That P.M.'s view of the evidence differs from the trial judge's is not a basis for appellate intervention.
The totality of the substantial credible evidence in the record substantiates the finding of abuse and neglect. The judge properly “articulate[d], with particularity, the facts upon which a determination of abuse or neglect [wa]s made.” N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. J.Y., 352 N.J.Super. 245, 265 (App.Div.2002) (citing N.J.S.A. 9:6–8.50). She concluded the totality of P.M.'s conduct — including the serious, repetitive acts of striking the child in the face, ejecting her from the home when angry, and constantly abusing her with verbal assaults — unreasonably inflicted harm in the past. N.J.S.A. 9:6–21(c)(4)(b). Further, there existed a substantial risk of reoccurrence of those behaviors in the future, requiring court intervention. Ibid. See N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. Robert M., 347 N.J.Super. 44, 68 (App.Div.) (holding a determination of whether a parent has impaired the physical or emotional health of a child requires consideration of the totality of the circumstances), certif. denied, 174 N.J. 39 (2002).
1. FN1. On June 29, 2012, the Governor signed into law A–3101, which reorganized the Department of Children and Families, including renaming the Division as the Division of Child Protection and Permanency. L. 2012, c. 16, eff. June 29, 2012 (amending N.J.S.A. 9:3A–10(b)).