Clarkson S. Fisher, Jr., J.s.c.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher
CLARKSON S. FISHER, JR., J.S.C.
In this case, the Division of Youth and Family Services advised certain foster parents that three foster children would be removed from their home. The immediate question to be resolved concerns whether this court or the Appellate Division has jurisdiction over the dispute.
The facts reveal that J.B. (date of birth: February 25, 1987), M.L. (July 11, 1989) and M.W. (February 28, 1992) have been in foster care for many years. Their relationship with their natural parents was terminated long ago. They have since been in the care and custody of the Division of Youth and Family Services ("DYFS"). DYFS placed these children with M.P. and S.P. ("the foster parents") in 1988, 1989 and 1992, respectively. They came to the home of the foster parents when they were 18 months old, 4 months old and 6 weeks old, respectively. The foster parents are, in essence, the only caretakers these children have known; DYFS concedes the children are bonded to the foster parents.
On June 16, 1995, DYFS advised the foster parents, by letter, of various concerns with their parenting of the children, and indicated that it could no longer approve their adoption of the children. They were directed to the Division Office Manager as the person they should contact if they disputed that decision.
On June 28, 1995 the foster parents met with the Office Manager and a local Dispositional conference was held. On August 28, 1995 the Office Manager issued her written decision. That decision provided the specific reasons for the removal of the children. The foster parents were also advised that if they disagreed they could request further administrative review.
On November 3, 1995 a regional Dispositional conference was held before an administrative hearing officer; the parties presented evidence in support of their respective positions.
On January 30, 1996 the foster parents were provided with the decision of the Administrative Review Officer which affirmed DYFS's determination to remove the children. The foster parents were advised that this was a final administrative determination appealable only to the Appellate Division unless they chose to exercise their right to further administrative review. They were further advised that if they elected not to exercise this option within ten days from January 30, 1996 the determination of the regional administrator would become a final agency decision.
The foster parents apparently never attempted to appeal that final agency decision. Nevertheless, Division Director Patricia Balasco-Barr reviewed the decision of the regional administrator and affirmed the removal of the children. On June 5, 1996, the foster parents were advised that the children would be removed and taken to their new foster homes at the Conclusion of the school year on June 28, 1996.
Apparently, at the request of the foster parents, a child placement review hearing was somehow administratively scheduled and listed on this court's calendar for June 14, 1996. At that time DYFS contended that any further action in this case should be in the Appellate Division, relying upon N.J.A.C. 10:120-2.9. The foster parents argued that this court has jurisdiction because it is being asked to review the action of the Child Placement Review Board of April 14, 1996. See, N.J.S.A. 30:4C-58. To resolve this issue the court set up an expedited briefing schedule. The foster parent's brief, DYFS's response and the foster parent's reply were received and considered. The last of these was received on June 27, 1996. DYFS previously agreed to refrain from removing the children until July 2, 1996, but no longer.
The foster parents raise a number of issues, including (1) whether or to what extent they have standing to be heard in the past, present or any future legal action with respect to these children, *fn2 (2) whether they have been afforded due process in connection with the legal proceedings to date, and (3) whether all administrative remedies have been exhausted. DYFS has also used this opportunity to express its views on the propriety of their decision to remove these children from the foster parents. While all these issues are certainly important, they are not presently before the court. The primary issue that must be decided is whether the merits of all these contentions should be resolved in this court or the Appellate Division.
The answer to that question can be obtained from a clear understanding of the scope of the Child Placement Review Act ("the Act"). The Act's declared policy is "to afford every child placed outside his [or her] home by with an opportunity for the eventual return to his [or her] home or placement in an alternative home." N.J.S.A. 30:4C-51. The Act establishes "procedures for both administrative and judicial review of each child's placement in order to ensure that such placement serves the best interest of the child." Id.
The Act requires the local child placement review board to review placement plans, N.J.S.A. 30:4C-58, and suggest to the Chancery ...