On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, FG-07-146-04.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Collester, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Coburn, Collester and Lisa.
In these consolidated appeals, R.L. and E.L., the natural mother and father, each appeal from a judgment entered by the trial court on April 27, 2005, terminating their parental rights to B.L., their son, and awarding guardianship of the child to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division).
R.L. and E.L. each argue that the trial judge'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-15.19(a). See Division of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 604-11 (1986).
In reviewing a case in which termination of parental rights has been granted, we are mindful of the gravity and importance of our decision. Fundamental rights and interests of parents must be heavily weighed against critical concerns of the State acting as parens patriae to protect the health and welfare of children and to keep them from abuse or neglect or other conduct with deleterious consequences. A parent's right to enjoy a relationship with his or her child 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, 651, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 1213, 31 L.Ed. 2d 551, 559 (1972)); In re Adoption of Children by G.P.B., Jr., 161 N.J. 396, 404 (1999); In re Adoption of Children by L.A.S., 134 N.J. 127 (1993); A.W., supra, 103 N.J. at 599. We recognize that 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). 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.
There is a presumption 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. Unfortunately, the incidence of child abuse and neglect demonstrates that some parents may act in ways that undermine the interests of their children rather than advance them. Ibid.
Accordingly, the State "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 2054, 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, which 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 court's 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). That is, the focus of the inquiry is not only whether the parent is fit, but also whether he or she can become fit within time to assume the parental role necessary 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 Division as 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-interest-of-the-child standard. K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 347. As first held in A.W., supra, 103 N.J. at 604-10, and later codified by the Legislature, parental rights may be severed only 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.
These tests are interrelated and overlapping; they are designed to identify and assess what may be necessary to promote and protect the best interests of the child. 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).
Therefore, in reviewing the factual findings and conclusions of a trial judge, we are obliged to accord deference to the trial court's credibility determination 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 logically flow from those findings of fact are, likewise, entitled to deferential consideration upon 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 before us.
B.L. was born on March 9, 2000, and within a few months, suffered unexplained injuries which led to suspicions that he had been abused. On August 29, 2000, at age five and one-half months, B.L. was taken to the emergency room of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center for treatment of a head injury. R.L. advised hospital personnel that she noticed a bruise on her son's head when she picked him up from a babysitter. Later R.L. said she confronted the babysitter, who denied any responsibility.
The hospital did not notify the Division or the police of suspected abuse. B.L. was observed and discharged with a follow-up examination scheduled with his pediatrician the following day. Although R.L. subsequently told the Division that she had contacted a DYFS worker that day, there is no record of any such report. It was several weeks after the incident before R.L. filed a complaint against the babysitter with the South Orange Police Department. Subsequent investigation indicated that the ...