The matter before the court presents a question of first impression in this State. The issue raised is whether indigent minors who are the subject of proceedings initiated under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-1 et seq. are entitled to independent assigned counsel.
This suit was precipitated by actions commenced by the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) against Sylvia Lee Wandell and George/Jorge Burgos under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-1 et seq. The amended complaint filed in this matter seeks a judgment including the following relief:
Although N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12 does not authorize the involuntary removal of children from the custody of their parent, once a judgment giving the Division "care and supervision" is entered, the Division may then institute proceedings pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15 and N.J.S.A. 30:4C-20 to terminate parental rights. A prior order of "care" is a prerequisite to the termination of parental rights where the Division does not have "custody." Division of Youth and Family Services v. Wunnenburg , 149 N.J. Super. 64 (J.D.R. Ct. 1977).
Particularly important is that the Division, upon the filing of a complaint pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15 and N.J.S.A. 30:4C-20, can obtain an interlocutory order of guardianship at a summary hearing under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-17 pending a final hearing of guardianship. Such an interlocutory order will result in the involuntary removal of the child subject of the complaint.
The matter is now before the court on a motion brought by defendant Sylvia Lee Wandell on behalf of her three minor children who are the subject of these proceedings, alleging that their constitutional rights require certain protective measures including the appointment of counsel.
That a natural parent has standing to assert the constitutional rights of her minor children seems firmly established by the case law of both the New Jersey and United States Supreme Courts. See In Re Quinlan , 70 N.J. 10 (1976); Eisenstadt v. Baird , 405 U.S. 438, 446, 92 S. Ct. 1029, 31 L. Ed. 2d 349 (1972), citing Prince v. Massachusetts , 321 U.S. 158, 64 S. Ct. 438, 88 L. Ed. 645 (1944).
The court's decision in Crist was grounded upon federal due process considerations. Recognizing the sanctity of the family unit, the court stated:
For the state to intrude permanently or only temporarily in a manner designed to disassemble the nuclear family, society's most basic human psychological unit, without affording counsel and guidance to a class of society's least equipped adversaries strikes the court as a fundamental deprivation of procedural due process. [at 415]
The integrity of the family unit has often found protection in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Meyer v. Nebraska , 262 U.S. 390, 43 S. Ct. 625, 67 L. Ed. 1042 (1923), Stanley v. Illinois , 405 U.S. 645, 92 S. Ct. 1208, 31 L. Ed. 2d 551 (1972); the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, ...