This is a contested stepfather adoption pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:3-48. It pits J*fn1, the stepfather (and perhaps psychological father) of a seven-year-old girl, against the infant's natural father, G. What this case is really about, however, are the primitive emotions associated with parenthood, and the management of such fragile human nature that the Family Part is called upon to service daily. The arid lip service of the law will likely be unsatisfactory to explain to the losing party in this matter why it must be so. Nevertheless, by treading water in an area so humanly basic, elemental, and delicate, it is impossible to fully explicate the rationale for the decision without resort to traditional and customary legalisms and precedent. In other words, how does one tell a father in this action either that he may not adopt his psychological child or that he may never see his natural child again? What follows is the court's attempt at explanation.
G and F were married on April 24, 1976. After a stormy run of separations and reconciliations, they gave birth to C on June 13, 1983. Shortly thereafter, on August 8, 1984, G and F obtained a judgment of divorce.
J met F at work after F's divorce. On April 4, 1987 they were wed, and J became the stepfather of C.
J and F both work outside of the home, although F's primary role in their marital partnership is to provide child care and homemaking. J is employed as an auto service technician who earns in excess of $30,000 a year. The family lives modestly, and apparently very happily.
C has been described by the guardian ad litem as a "charming, articulate little girl." The report of the Children's Aid and Adoption Society of New Jersey describes C as "a charming, sociable, expressive little girl."
J and F claim that the natural father intentionally abandoned his daughter and substantially neglected his parental duties without a reasonable expectation of a reversal in the future. The guardian ad litem, who interviewed all of the participants, and who unselfishly obtained a pro bono evaluation of the natural father by a well-respected psychological expert, concurs in the position that G's parental rights should be terminated.
G admitted that he is suffering from chronic alcoholism and is presently undergoing out-patient treatment at a Veteran's Administration hospital for cirrhosis. He claims that he has not consumed alcoholic products since being released from a hospital visit related to his addiction in February 1990. He has been told that if he falls off of the wagon, he will be dead within two months. He further admits, however, that he does not actively participate in any ongoing group counseling such as Alcoholics Anonymous because he believes that he is capable of dealing with the disease alone.
G recognizes that his minimal involvement in C's life is primarily his fault and lack of responsibility. He acknowledges that during the early years of her infancy, he made no attempt to visit or contact her. In fact, both natural parents agree that there was only one visit between daughter and natural father since the divorce, and that it was only an afternoon encounter. G's excuse for not contacting his daughter is that he was
incapable of establishing a normal human relationship due to his alcoholism. Furthermore, not being adept at interrelating to small children, G believed that it would have been better if his daughter and former wife lived independently of him until his daughter matured somewhat. G concedes that during the depression of his alcoholism, he feared for the safety of his daughter if he were to exercise visitation. In order to obviate the possibility of harm, he remained aloof.
G made some half-hearted attempts to find his former wife and daughter when they moved from Hudson County to Bergen County. The only consistent contact between G and his former wife over the last six years was through probation department enforcement proceedings to compel child support payments in Hudson County. At no time during those ongoing enforcement proceedings did G request the implementation of visitation rights with his daughter. G claims that he did not know that he had a right to ask for visitation during such proceedings. He was not represented by an attorney during that period of time.
The only other contact between G and his former wife over the last six years was limited to discussions regarding the impending adoption proceedings, where G openly, consistently, and steadfastly objected to suffering the termination of his parental rights. He expressed concern at the hearing that if he lost his daughter, she would never know him and his side of the family. As an example, he fears that C will never realize that she was named for a maternal and paternal great grandmother.
F, the natural mother, did not conceal her whereabouts or try to insulate C from her natural father. For approximately two years after the divorce F maintained contact with G's mother, C's grandmother. Contact was lost after repeated frustration was incurred by the failure of G to make consistent child support payments. F was understandably bitter toward G as a result of his persistent failure to pay child support. The
judgment of divorce required G to pay $125 a week as child support. This was obtained primarily through wage garnishments, until G lost his job as a result of his substance abuse. Thereafter, child support was ultimately reduced to $25 a week of support plus $10 a week for arrears. (Although there was no direct evidence of the amount of arrears, it appears that at one time it exceeded $14,000!) G has recently maintained a current payment status through the generosity of his mother, who makes payments to the Hudson County Probation Department on his behalf. G, who claims to be presently unemployed, has applied for disability benefits. He resides with his mother.
J, the stepfather, was previously married and is the father of a ten-year-old boy. He pays $75 a week child support to his first wife. C and J's son are friends; they see each other when J exercises his regular visitation. F, the natural mother, has consented to the adoption, and notwithstanding her longstanding animosity, she spoke evenhandedly and fairly about G. She did not portray him as an ogre or as a wholly unfeeling person. She simply recounted the loneliness and ...