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In re Guardianship of J.N.H.

November 18, 2004


On remand from the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Atlantic County. Arlene Gilbert Groch argued the cause for appellant C.H.G.


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

C.H.G. is the biological mother of J.N.H. Almost from the time J.N.H. was born, C.H.G was abusing illegal substances. The Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) began monitoring the family in early 1995. Eventually, J.N.H. was placed with his current foster parents in June 1996; he was two years and three months old. On August 18, 1997, DYFS transferred supervision of J.N.H. to the Adoption Resource Center unit because of C.H.G.'s long-term noncompliance with court orders. At the time, J.N.H. had been residing with his foster parents for just over one year.

In September 1997, C.H.G. was incarcerated in the Edna Mahon Correctional Facility for Women for a probation violation. She remained incarcerated until March 20, 1998. J.N.H. had no visitation with his mother during that time.

On December 8, 1997, DYFS filed an action seeking guardianship of J.N.H. and terminating C.H.G.'s parental rights. At the time of the proceeding, C.H.G. also had two older children: Jeremy, age ten, and Benjamin, age nine. Jeremy and Benjamin lived with their maternal grandmother. Three-year-old J.N.H. was living with his foster parents who sought to adopt him.

On October 26, 1998, the trial court entered an order terminating the parental rights of C.H.G. over J.N.H. as a result of C.H.G.'s inability to overcome her alcohol and drug addictions and to provide a safe home for her son. In terminating parental rights, the court found that DYFS provided C.H.G. with various services, including foster care for J.N.H., drug and alcohol evaluations and treatment, and parenting skills training. Despite those efforts, C.H.G. remained homeless, unemployed, continued to abuse illegal substances, and lived in and out of various places. The court noted that C.H.G. failed to cooperate with various programs, including substance-abuse treatment programs, and was ultimately terminated from all programs, remaining in denial about her drug problem. According to the court, C.H.G. provided no care, comfort or nurturing to J.N.H. and had failed in all respects to parent the child. The court did note that since her release from the correctional facility to the Intense Supervision Program in March 1998, C.H.G. showed signs of improvement. Nonetheless, the court concluded that, in light of her conviction of abuse and neglect and the strong expert testimony regarding the harm to J.H.N. in separating him from his foster parents, the requirements for termination of parental rights had been met.

In 2001, C.H.G., who by then had completely transformed her life, moved for vacation of the 1998 Order terminating parental rights pursuant to Rule 4:50-1(e) and (f). At the time, J.N.H. was seven years old and had been living with his foster family for five years. The trial court denied the motion and the Appellate Division affirmed on appeal.

The Supreme Court granted C.H.G.'s petition for certification and reversed the decision of the Appellate Division, remanding to the trial court for a full hearing to determine whether the judgment terminating C.H.G.'s parental rights "continues to be a just and equitable outcome." Among the Court's concerns were evidence of C.H.G.'s present fitness as a parent; a suggestion that J.N.H. was responding negatively to the termination of contact with C.H.G.; the absence of a recent psychological evaluation of J.N.H.; and the foster family's expressed intent to terminate any contact between C.H.G. and J.N.H. upon adoption. The Court retained jurisdiction.

The trial court followed the instructions of the Court on remand and, after a hearing that included updated bonding and psychological evaluations of all parties, issued a thorough and thoughtful opinion concluding that J.N.H.'s need for permanency and his identification with his foster parents as his psychological family warranted termination of the parental rights of C.H.G., notwithstanding her present ability to be a fit parent. In it's ruling, the trial court recognized that all of the experts in the case had concluded that continued contact between J.N.H. and C.H.G. was necessary to foster the child's best interests. The court refused to order such visitation in light of the foster parents' agreement voluntarily to continue contact between J.N.H. and his biological family, and because it viewed an order of post-adoption visitation to be beyond its power under the Court's decision in In the Matter of the Guardianship of K.H.O.

The matter is now before the Supreme Court from the remand to the trial court.

HELD: The record established before the trial court fully supports the decision to terminate the parental rights of C.H.G over her son, J.N.H.

1. The expert and fact testimony in the record fully supports the trial court's conclusion that termination of parental rights is in the best interests of J.N.H. (P. 3)

2. The Court will not address the thorny issue of mandatory post-adoption visitation. The issue is not ripe for review or adjudication because none of the parties in their briefs argued that this Court should revisit K.H.O. and allow for such court-ordered visitation. The Court takes the foster parents at their word and expects that, as they have promised, they will provide J.N.H. such opportunities to ...

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