On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division -Family Part, Monmouth County, FG-13-77-01.
Before Judges Baime, Fall and Axelrad.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Axelrad, J.T.C. (temporarily assigned).
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: December 5, 2001
This appeal requires us to construe N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15(f), which directs DYFS to file a petition for guardianship whenever
the parent of a child has been found by a criminal court of competent jurisdiction to have committed . . . or attempted to commit, an assault that resulted, or could have resulted, in the significant bodily injury to the child or another child of the parent . . . . [Emphasis added.]
At issue is whether summary judgment is a proper vehicle for the termination of parental rights. We also consider whether the word "parent" in the above statute encompasses anyone who is in an in loco parentis status to the child, as broadly defined in the abuse and neglect statute, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21, or whether its scope is limited to a biological or adoptive parent.
We are of the view that summary disposition is generally an inappropriate remedy in a termination of parental rights case. We also hold that the word "parent" in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15(f) is to be construed literally to mean a biological or adoptive parent who is convicted of a serious offense against any of his or her children.
In this guardianship action, J.C., the natural father of a daughter, S.L.M., born on September 14, 1999, appeals from the entry of summary judgment in favor of plaintiff, New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), terminating his parental rights as to S.L.M. and committing her to the "guardianship, care, custody and control" of DYFS for all purposes, including placement for adoption. We reverse and remand for a plenary hearing as to the N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1 "best interests" criteria.
The basis for DYFS' motion for summary judgment relates to J.C.'s abuse and neglect of S.L.M.'s half-sister C.M., born on November 13, 1996. J.M. is the mother of both C.M. and S.L.M. D.S. is the father of C.M. and J.C. is the father of S.L.M. J.C. pled guilty to second-degree aggravated assault of C.M. occurring on August 30, 1998. The incident occurred while J.M. had allowed J.C., her co-habitant paramour, to care for the child. While high on drugs, J.C. placed C.M. in a scalding hot shower, resulting in second and third degree burns over half her body. On March 31, 2000, he was sentenced to a five-year term of imprisonment, with an 85% parole disqualifier pursuant to the No Early Release Act.
DYFS filed a Title 9 child abuse and neglect complaint against J.M. and D.S. with respect to the care and custody of C.M. On February 10, 1999, C.M. was removed from the home and placed in the home of her maternal grandparents where she still resides.
J.M. continued to reside with J.C. after the incident with C.M., became pregnant, and S.L.M. was born on September 14, 1999. DYFS filed an amended Title 9 complaint, adding J.C. as a defendant as to S.L.M. On November 19, 1999, an order was entered placing S.L.M. in DYFS' care and custody, who later placed her with her maternal aunt and uncle. On December 1, 1999, a dispositional order was entered in the abuse and neglect action incorporating the domestic violence restraining order precluding J.C. from having any contact with either C.M. or S.L.M.
After a hearing on June 7, 2000, a further dispositional order was entered in which the natural mother, J.M., surrendered her parental rights to C.M. and S.L.M, to allow the children to be adopted by their maternal grandmother and maternal aunt, respectively. Based on J.C.'s conviction of aggravated assault against C.M., the court made a finding of "abuse and neglect" as to both children under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21, and relieved DYFS of expending any reasonable efforts to reunify J.C. with S.L.M.
On August l5, 2000, DYFS filed a guardianship complaint in which it sought to terminate J.C.'s parental rights as to S.L.M. pursuant to N.J.S.A. ...