On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 311 N.J. Super. 38(1998).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pollock, J.
This appeal concerns the standards for terminating the parental rights of a biological parent in an adoption proceeding. In this appeal, the stepfather of two minor children seeks to terminate the parental rights of the biological father and to adopt the children. The Family Part terminated the biological father's parental rights and approved the adoption. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the biological father did not pose an imminent danger to the children. 311 N.J. Super. 38 (App. Div. 1998). We granted the stepfather's petition for certification. 156 N.J. 405 (1998). During the pendency of the appeal, the Legislature amended the governing statute, N.J.S.A. 9:3-46, to emphasize that the dominant consideration was the best interest of children rather than the rights of their biological parents. We reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and remand the matter to the Family Part for reconsideration under the amended statute.
G.P.B. is the stepfather of two boys, R.M., age eleven, and A.M., age nine. The boys are the biological children of G.P.B.'s wife, A.B., and her former husband, M.M. The boys consider G.P.B. to be their father, and want to use his last name as theirs. G.P.B. wishes to adopt the boys. As part of the adoption proceeding, he seeks termination of M.M.'s parental rights. M.M. objects to the adoption.
A.B. and M.M. were married in 1981. After several months, A.B. realized that M.M. was an alcoholic. At A.B.'s insistence, M.M. attended meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. His condition stabilized, and M.M. and A.B. decided to have a child.
During A.B.'s pregnancy, however, M.M. again began to drink heavily. After the birth of R.M. on November 20, 1987, M.M. was so incapacitated that he could not care for his son. After consulting a drug-and-alcohol counselor, M.M. abstained from alcohol for a year. By 1989, however, M.M. had resumed his alcohol abuse. From the time A.M. was born on November 2, 1989, M.M. has not been involved in caring for his two sons.
In the spring of 1990, when A.M. was six months and R.M. was two and a half years old, A.B. and M.M. separated. M.M. became mentally ill and was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder aggravated by alcohol and antihistamine abuse. Between 1990 and 1993, M.M. underwent several periods of psychiatric hospitalization.
Nonetheless, between 1990 and 1991, M.M. visited the boys weekly in a supervised setting. He also provided financial support for them. On Thanksgiving of 1991, however, M.M. appeared at A.B.'s home, told her that he was Jesus Christ, and that his place was with her. A.B. terminated his visitations with the children. M.M. has not seen or spoken with his children since that time.
In February 1992, A.B. and M.M. were divorced. As part of the divorce settlement, the Family Part granted A.B. sole custody of the children. In the separation agreement, M.M. surrendered all visitation rights, but agreed to pay $800 per month in child support. According to M.M., however, A.B. agreed orally to allow him supervised visitation.
Between 1992 and 1996, M.M. filed several motions for supervised visitation. A.B. opposed the motions, arguing that M.M. was not stable. M.M. declined to provide his medical records or other proof that his condition had improved. The Family Part denied his motions.
During this period, M.M. failed to make the promised support payments. He limited his monthly payments to $186 from his $810 monthly Social Security disability benefits. More recently, M.M. appears to have paid all child-support arrears.
In addition, M.M. tried several times to communicate with the children. His mother called to ask if the children wished to speak with him. He sent them cards and small gifts. A.B. rebuffed his efforts.
In 1991, A.B. began dating G.P.B. They were married in 1994. During the course of their courtship, G.P.B. and A.B. primarily went with the boys on "family dates," such as picnics or trips to the zoo. Now, G.P.B. is substantially involved in the boys' lives as their father. He does the kinds of things that fathers do. He makes breakfast and prepares them for school, coaches R.M.'s soccer team, attends R.M.'s choir performances and A.M.'s violin recitals, helps the boys with school projects, and meets with their teachers. Functionally, he is their father.
To M.M.'s credit, since 1993 he has been a recovering alcoholic. His condition has stabilized, and he receives regular treatment. M.M. has remarried, and is the primary caretaker of two children from his second marriage. He also cares for his four stepchildren. At the time of trial, M.M. was a full-time college student.
M.M. wants to keep his parental rights, and therefore opposes G.P.B.'s request to adopt the boys. He seeks only supervised visitation, not custody of A.M. and R.M.
At trial, both sides relied on experts. Dr. Dov Hammer, testifying for G.P.B., stated that he believed adoption to be in the boys' best interests. Dr. Hammer testified that the younger boy, A.M., has no recollection of his biological father and is completely bonded to his mother and stepfather. By contrast, R.M. shows symptoms of anxiety about M.M. R.M. was quite young when M.M.'s mental illness was uncontrolled. R.M.'s recollection of M.M.'s irrational behavior has left R.M. with substantial feelings of anxiety. Additionally, R.M. is less secure about the stability of his family. Terminating the biological father's parental rights and granting the stepfather's petition, in Dr. Hammer's opinion, would alleviate R.M.'s anxieties.
M.M.'s expert, Dr. Rao Gogineni, reached the opposite Conclusion. Dr. Gogineni stated that terminating M.M.'s parental rights would indicate to the boys "that part of them[, that is, their natural father,] is bad." According to Dr. Gogineni, the children's interests would be served best by reinitiating contact with M.M. He believed that the children could form a relationship in which they identify M.M. as their father.
The Family Part granted the adoption, finding that the evidence met the standards of N.J.S.A. 9:3-46(a). In particular, the court found that for more than six months the children have not perceived M.M. as their father. Consequently, the court entered an order terminating M.M.'s parental rights.
The Appellate Division reversed. It reasoned that although the children had no relationship with M.M., the appropriate test was whether continuation of M.M.'s parental rights would result in imminent danger of serious harm to the children. Finding no such ...