On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, FG-14-24-04.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kestin, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: November 29, 2005
Before Judges Kestin, Hoens and Seltzer.
In these consolidated appeals, M.M. and C.B. each appeal from a judgment entered by the trial court on May 10, 2005, terminating their parental rights with respect to their son, M.A.M., and awarding guardianship over the child to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division). M.M. and C.B. each argue that the trial court's respective findings and conclusions were not supported by clear and convincing evidence that all of the four statutory criteria for termination of parental rights had been satisfied. N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a. See Division of Youth and Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 604- 11 (1986).
In every instance in which termination of parental rights is sought, a balancing judgment is required between competing factors. The balance implicates fundamental rights and interests of the parents and the children, as well as critical governmental concerns.
The right of parents to enjoy a relationship with their children is of constitutional dimension. In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 346 (1999) (citing Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 31 L.Ed. 2d 551 (1972)); In re Adoption of Children by G.P.B. Jr., 161 N.J. 396, 404 (1999); Adoption of Children by L.A.S., 134 N.J. 127 (1993); A.W., supra, 103 N.J. 591. Parents have a fundamental liberty interest in raising their biological children. Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 1394, 71 L.Ed. 2d 599, 606 (1982). Both the federal and State constitutions protect the integrity of the family unit. Stanley, supra, 405 U.S. at 651, 92 S.Ct. at 1212-13, 31 L.Ed. 2d at 558-59; A.W., supra, 103 N.J. at 599.
The law presumes that parents will act to promote the best interests of their children. See Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 602, 99 S.Ct. 2493, 2504, 61 L.Ed. 2d 101, 118 (1979). However, "experience and reality may rebut what the law accepts as a starting point . . . ." Id. at 602, 99 S.Ct. at 2504, 61 L.Ed. 2d at 119. The incidence of child abuse and neglect cases demonstrates that some parents may act in ways that undermine the interests of their children rather than advance them. Ibid.
Government "is not without constitutional control over parental discretion in dealing with children when their physical or mental health is jeopardized." Id. at 603, 99 S.Ct. at 2504, 61 L.Ed. 2d at 119 (citing Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 230, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 1540, 32 L.Ed. 2d 15, 33 (1972)). The State as parens patriae may act to protect children from serious physical and emotional harm. This may require partial or complete severance of the parent-child relationship. Yet, "[f]ew forms of state action are both so severe and so irreversible." Santosky, supra, 455 U.S. at 759, 102 S.Ct. at 1398, 71 L.Ed. 2d at 610.
When a biological parent resists termination of his or her parental rights, the courts' function is to decide whether that parent has the capacity to eliminate any harm the child may already have suffered, and whether that parent can raise the child without inflicting any further harm. In re Guardianship of J.C., 129 N.J. 1, 10 (1992). The focus of our inquiry is not only whether the parent is fit, but also whether he or she can become fit to assume the parental role within time to meet the child's needs. Ibid. "The analysis of harm entails strict standards to protect the statutory and constitutional rights" of the biological parents. Ibid. The burden rests on the party seeking to terminate parental rights "to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence" that the risk of "serious and lasting [future] harm to the child" is sufficiently great as to require severance of parental ties. Ibid.
The balance between fundamental parental rights and the State's parens patriae responsibility is promoted by the law's best-interests-of-the-child standard. K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 347. Under that principle, parental rights may be severed when:
(1) The child's safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship;
(2) The parent is unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing the child or is unable or unwilling to provide a safe and stable home for the child and the delay of permanent placement will add to the harm. Such harm may include evidence that separating the child from his resource family parents would cause serious and enduring emotional or psychological harm to the child;
(3) The division has made reasonable efforts to provide services to help the parent correct the circumstances which led to the child's placement outside the home and the court has considered alternatives to termination of parental rights; and
(4) Termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good.
See also A.W., supra, 103 N.J. at 604-11.
These tests are inter-related and overlapping; they are designed to identify and assess what may be necessary to promote and protect the best interests of the children. K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 348. The considerations involved in determining parental unfitness are "extremely fact sensitive" and require particularized evidence that addresses the specific circumstances of the individual case. Ibid. (quoting L.A.S., supra, 134 N.J. at 139).
In reviewing the factual findings and conclusions of a trial judge, we are obliged to accord deference to the trial court's credibility determinations and the judge's "feel of the case" based upon his or her opportunity to see and hear the witnesses. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-13 (1998). We are not to disturb the judge's findings of fact unless they are "so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Id. at 412 (quoting Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)). And, the conclusions that flow logically from those findings of fact are, likewise, entitled to deferential consideration on appellate review. See Cesare, supra, 154 N.J. at 412; Rova Farms, supra, 65 N.J. at 484.
Our obligation to defer to the trial court does not extend to issues of law, however. "A trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty v. Township Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995). With all the foregoing standards in mind, we turn to the facts of the matter. The trial judge consistently referred to this case as entailing a special problem: one person of a couple who is a competent parent and another who is not. M.A.M., the child who is the subject of this proceeding, was born on January 7, 2003. C.B., the mother of M.A.M. was thirty-one years of age at the time of trial. M.M., the father, was fifty-nine. The parents have another child, a daughter, C.M., who was born on October 30, 1993, and resides with them. C.B. and M.M. have lived together for about fifteen years and continue to maintain a household. The family's case history with the Division predates the birth of M.A.M. C.B. concedes that "[t]here had been at least seven prior referrals regarding [C.M.]."
M.A.M. was placed with the foster parents on January 23, 2003, sixteen days after his birth. He has lived with them ever since.
The trial court found that, when M.A.M. was born, hospital personnel expressed concern with C.B.'s apparently limited cognitive capacities[,] . . . hygiene, and [that] she appeared to be overwhelmed by the prospect or obligation of caring for the newborn . . . . [F]urther investigation by the Division [produced] concerns about the home environment, concerns about the general stability of the home, the financial stability, and some issues regarding cleanliness, although . . . [the older child's] room was always neat and clean.
The record discloses that the infant also suffered from hyperglycemia. Hospital personnel were specifically concerned with C.B.'s apparent inability to deal properly with this condition, especially with respect to the feeding regimen required to maintain proper levels of glucose.
The trial judge referred to "documentation" that indicated C.B. had been "subject to some abuse in her younger days and that it is carried over and, unfortunately, had an impact on her as time has gone on." He found as a fact that her I.Q. was in the mid-sixties and that's an explanation to a certain extent of why conclusions have been reached regarding her cognitive limitations. I think that the evidence established that [C.B.]'s cognitive limitations are severe. There was testimony that she operates . . . in many describable and measurable ways on . . . the level of a five-year-old. I think that in some ways socially she is more adept in certain contexts.
From the evidence, primarily the testimony of M.M., the judge concluded that C.B. could "be brought along and made productive in ways that go beyond . . . what a five-year-old is capable of," both in assisting M.M. in his work and in the "family setting," but the judge stressed "the limits we're working with."
He went on to find from the evidence that C.B. is subject to substantial immaturity. There recently has been prominent and has come to my attention and I think is established by the evidence an alcohol problem which exacerbates some of the other problems that we're talking about.
And also the history of the case has pretty clearly established what I would call a very destabilizing and negative pattern of behavior in terms of periodically running away from the home and sometimes bringing allegations of domestic abuse against [M.M.] which my reaction to and based upon her frequent recantations of them . . . are false, but in any event, there has been a pattern which I'll get into more of very disruptive and damaging behavior . . . in terms of the family stability of running away from home.
It has had an impact on the general stability of the family and also a negative impact on [C.M.], who has seen her mother come and go in this way and it's been a problem. So that is one person who's involved in the equation here.
Turning to M.M.'s parenting history, the judge expressly found, from both the evidence at trial and based on his impressions as the case had matured, that M.M. is an industrious hardworking individual. He overcame previous life problems with drugs and his family, and brothers and fathers had a lot of negative things happen to them because of different life issues including substance abuse issues. He had spent time in jail . . . for drug issues, but ...