Gaulkin, Collester and Labrecque. The opinion of the court was delivered by Gaulkin, S.j.a.d.
This case is here on appeal by Betty Cope from a judgment of the Essex County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court awarding guardianship, care, custody and control of her two daughters, Bettina and Darquitta, to the New Jersey State Bureau of Children's Services (Bureau). The order terminates all parental rights between the children and their mother and grants the Bureau full power over the person and property of the children, but "without authority to consent to adoption." The mother contends that the competent evidence adduced at trial fails to support this award. We agree.
The Bureau proceeds here under N.J.S.A. 30:4 C -15, which provides in pertinent part that a petition for guardianship may be filed whenever "it appears that the best interests of any child under the care or custody of the Bureau
of Childrens Services require that he be placed under guardianship." N.J.S.A. 30:4 C -15(c). While literally the statutory test is "the best interests of the child," this does not mean that the Bureau need show no more than that the Bureau's care has proved more beneficial to the child than that of its parents. All sections of N.J.S.A. 30:4 C , including N.J.S.A. 30:4 C -15(c), are "to be administered strictly in accordance with [the following] general principles * * * which are declared to be the public policy of this State:
"(a) that the preservation and strengthening of family life is a matter of public concern as being in the interests of the general welfare;
(b) that the prevention and correction of dependency and delinquency among children should be accomplished so far as practicable through welfare services which will seek to continue the living of such children in their homes;
As we have said in the analogous context of adoption proceedings, the rights of the child's natural parents are essential factors for judicial consideration.
"The parental relationship is an integral part of the 'best interests' test [ N.J.S.A. 9:3-27 subd. C]; otherwise any person could adopt a child if he were potentially a better parent than the child's natural mother or father. The welfare of the child is inextricably bound up with the rights of the parent." In re N , 96 N.J. Super. 415, 423 (App. Div. 1967).
Although the Bureau insists that it will return the children to their mother as soon as she is able to care for them, and the order of the court below forbids adoption apparently with this result in mind, the award of guardianship nonetheless terminates parental rights "for all purposes" and vests full and complete control in the Bureau. Any decision to return the children to their mother appears to be completely within the Bureau's discretion.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon the Bureau, or other petitioner for guardianship, to show more than that it will
provide a better home for the child. It must demonstrate affirmatively that the child's "best interests" will be substantially prejudiced if he is permitted to remain with his parent -- e.g. , that his health and development have been or probably will be impaired and that the parent is unlikely or unwilling to change, or ...