On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by O'Hern, J. Justice Stein, did not participate.
This appeal concerns the standard for termination of parental rights under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15 and -20. We hold that the trial court incorrectly emphasized the economic and social disadvantages of respondent-parents as factors that excused or outweighed in significance the essentially uncontradicted showing of serious harm suffered by the children as a result of a lack of nurturing care in the home. We direct that the matter be promptly reconsidered in light of the applicable legal standards with the goal of permanently settling the situation of these five children as soon as possible.
At issue is the well-being of seven members of a troubled family in one of our urban centers. The parents, Robert and Adrian, are now 35 and 30 years of age, respectively. Both have limited backgrounds and abilities. Robert, the father, has been diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder and Adrian has been diagnosed as having pronounced limitations
that affect her judgment and capacity to care for her children. Robert struggles to be economically independent by working in a local restaurant.
Because these proceedings presuppose "care or custody" of the children with the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15(c) and (d), a review of the agency's history with this family must be undertaken. The investigatory records of DYFS reveal the following.*fn1 The couple had their first child, Ennett, in 1974. In June of 1975, DYFS received a complaint from Robert's mother, alleging that Adrian had abandoned Ennett. DYFS workers found Adrian in a hospital. She was severely injured. She attributed her injuries to an assault by Robert. Upon release from the hospital, DYFS assisted Adrian in moving herself and Ennett to her mother's home. Eventually both Adrian and Ennett moved back in with Robert.
In June 1976, a welfare board worker referred Adrian and Ennett to DYFS. Mother and daughter were removed from the home; Adrian, however, returned the next day. In July of 1976, Adrian signed a placement agreement whereby Ennett would be cared for by her paternal great grandmother. DYFS continued to supervise Ennett but lost touch with the parents.
The Division regained contact with the couple in 1977. Though Robert allegedly continued to beat her, Adrian married him in October 1977. In March 1978, they resumed care of Ennett under the supervision of DYFS.
In September 1978, a daughter, Kimberly, was born. In November of 1978, Adrian asked DYFS to remove herself and the two girls from the home due to her own fears for the safety and well-being of the children. She claimed that her husband not only beat her but also had threatened to kill her with a knife. After a week in a shelter, she returned home with the children. The DYFS worker who tried to do a follow-up visit was told by Robert that he would kill the worker if he returned again.
In December 1978, the two girls were placed in foster care with the agreement of their parents. Ennett, then four years old, showed signs of physical injury as well as severe emotional disorder. At that time, the DYFS worker had been repeatedly informed by Adrian that her husband assaulted her and that she feared for her own safety. The worker had seen Robert in a variety of moods ranging from despair to rage. Intense hostility was the dominant tone of what the worker viewed as a violent, unpredictable personality. Adrian was seen as an extremely passive, unassuming person who did not appear to be able to function outside of the confines of her present marital situation. She described to the worker the frequency and increased intensity of beatings by her husband, from whom she was unable to sever her ties.
DYFS contends that it tried thereafter to help the parents resume the care of their children but the efforts were unsuccessful. They remained in foster care. Two boys, Robert and Michael, were born in 1979 and 1980. Soon after Michael's birth, a DYFS worker visited the home and was told by Robert that DYFS could keep the girls but he would "kill anyone who tries to take the boys."
On October 8, 1980, on the motion of the Division, an order was entered placing Ennett and Kimberly under the care, custody, and supervision of DYFS; young Robert was placed under DYFS's supervision. In that and subsequent proceedings, law guardians were appointed to represent the children,
and counsel were appointed for the parents. In this proceeding, Robert was represented by pro bono counsel.
The girls continued to be separated from and were not seen by their parents for over a year. The parents continued to reject all of DYFS's attempts to provide homemaker services, counseling, and visits with the girls. DYFS workers who visited the home in 1981 found it in "total disarray." In early 1982, Adrian gave birth to a fifth child, a boy, Jacob. Jacob died in September 1982. Faced with information that the infant's death was not accidental, a DYFS caseworker went to the home and found what she considered to be appalling conditions of neglect. The two young boys who were with their parents showed minor signs of physical neglect but major signs of a lack of emotional and developmental growth. On October 7, 1982, on DYFS's motion, an order was entered placing Robert and Michael under the care, custody, and supervision of the Division. The two boys were placed in foster care.
Despite the problems, DYFS sought to work with the parents to facilitate returning the boys and eventually reuniting the entire family. Jacob's death was confirmed as not being the result of foul play; it was attributed to sudden-infant-death syndrome. DYFS arranged for supervised visitation with the children at a child-care center and sought to build, at least in Adrian, a greater strength and ability to provide care for the children. Until 1984, the Division continued to help the parents but all efforts appeared unsuccessful. Of both parents, one witness later concluded:
[T]heir comprehension is on the level of a child basically. Their judgment, insight, understanding, ability to predict from one step to the next, ability to perceive what is happening and understand what is going on are very, very limited compared to other adults of their age.
Finally, in July 1984, their last child, Joseph, was born. Because of concern for his health, Joseph was immediately placed under DYFS's care.*fn2
Following a two-day trial in October 1984, the Family Part reserved decision on the question whether parental rights should be terminated. The trial judge issued a decision from the bench on January 25, 1985. Regrettably, Ennett and Kimberly's foster mother died before the court reached its decision. The court deferred decision on the two girls pending evaluation of their relationship with their new foster mother, though the court indicated its belief that they too should ultimately be returned to the natural parents. As for the boys, however, the court found it was in their best interests that they be returned to their natural parents. In its view the events were beyond the control of the parents: "[The] most that can be said combining the assessments of parents and children is that they are victims of cultural and financial deprivation." The court further emphasized that DYFS had made "no attempt * * * to * * * keep the family unit integral." The three boys were ordered returned to their parents with the direction that they be placed under the protective supervision of DYFS for one year. The trial court's decision was stayed pending appeal. The Appellate Division affirmed the judgment in an unreported opinion. We granted the State's petition for certification. 103 N.J. 471 (1986).
Termination of parental rights presents the legal system with an almost insoluble dilemma. On the one hand, we emphasize the inviolability of the family unit, noting that "[t]he rights to conceive and to raise one's children have been deemed 'essential,' * * * 'basic civil rights of man,' * * * and '[r]ights far more precious * * * than property rights' * * *." Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S. Ct. 1208, 1212, 31 L. Ed. 2d 551, 558 (1972) (citations omitted). The interests of parents in this relationship have thus been deemed fundamental and are constitutionally protected. On the other hand, it has been recognized "that a state is not without constitutional control over parental discretion in dealing with children when their physical or mental health is jeopardized." Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 603, 99 S. Ct. 2493, 2504, 61 L. Ed. 2d 101, 119 (1979) (citing Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 230, 92 S. Ct. 1526, 1540, 32 L. Ed. 2d 15, 33 (1972)).
These two concepts run so deeply in our culture that we find their reconciliation to be very difficult. Preservation of the traditional family is a staple of social rhetoric. It is that model of the family that our popular culture portrays. Yet, reality must intrude into this idealized view of American family life. The dark side to this is that "[a]s with so many other legal presumptions, experience and reality may rebut what the law accepts as a starting point; the incidence of child neglect and abuse cases attests to this." Parham v. J.R., supra, 442 U.S. at 602, 99 S. Ct. at 2504, 61 L. Ed. 2d at 119. Thus, it has been held that the right of parents to be free from governmental intrusion is not absolute. "The State as parens patriae may act to protect minor children from serious physical or emotional harm. In some instances this may require a partial or complete severance of the parent-child relationship." In re Dep't of Pub. Welfare, 383 Mass. 573, 587, 421 N.E. 2d 28, 36 (1981). Even though dissenting on the imposition of a federal standard of proof in a state termination proceeding, Justice Rehnquist recognized the stakes involved:
Few consequences of judicial action are so grave as the severance of natural family ties. Even the convict committed to prison and thereby deprived of his physical liberty often retains the love and support of family members.
[ Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 787, 102 S. Ct. 1388, 1412, 71 L. Ed. 2d 599, 628 (1982).]
In fulfillment of its protective jurisdiction over children when their physical or mental health is jeopardized, New Jersey has enacted a comprehensive regulatory program. DYFS is generally responsible for providing, through a variety of programs, necessary facilities and resources for children whose needs cannot be or are not being met by their families. See N.J.S.A. 30:4C-1, -2(a), and -4.*fn3 DYFS is specifically authorized to place a child in a foster home "[w]henever the circumstances of [the] child are such that his needs cannot be adequately met in his own home * * *." N.J.S.A. 30:4C-26(a). Moreover, the Legislature has provided specific conditions under which the Division may seek to terminate the rights of natural parents, thereby freeing their minor children for adoption. See N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15, -20. In this case we focus upon subsection (c) of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15, which provides that if "the best interests of any child under the care or custody of the [Division] require that he be placed under guardianship[,]" then the Division may petition the court for termination of parental rights.*fn4
If upon the completion of such hearing the court is satisfied that the best interests of such child require that he be placed under proper guardianship,
such court shall make an order terminating parental rights and committing such child to the guardianship and control of the [Division], and such child shall thereupon become the legal ward of [the Division], and [the Division] shall be the legal guardian of such child for all purposes, including the placement of such child for adoption. [ N.J.S.A. 30:4C-20.]
"Termination of parental rights is essentially, of course, a statutory proceeding; but the statute does not say it all. Overlying constitutional considerations, constantly recurring statutory amendments, and the rapidly evolving nature of present-day social theory and public policy make judicial interpretation an inevitable and indispensable part of critical legal operation." Champagne v. Welfare Div. of Nevada State Dep't of Human Resources, 100 Nev. 640, 663, 691 P. 2d 849, 865 (1984). Indeed, were the sole criterion stated to be ...