January 24, 2007
DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF S.T., A MINOR.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, FG-15-52-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 9, 2007
Before Judges Coburn and R. B. Coleman.
Defendant C.T. appeals from a judgment for guardianship entered by the Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, on June 1, 2006, terminating her parental rights in relation to S.T., the youngest of her six children, and awarding the guardianship, care and custody of S.T. to plaintiff, the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division).*fn1 For substantially the reasons stated in the comprehensive oral opinion of Judge Ronald E. Hoffman, we affirm.
The trial of this matter took place in the first half of 2006. By that time, S.T., who was born on May 14, 1998, had been out of C.T.'s home for approximately four years. During all but the first six months of those four years, S.T. was in the care of his current foster mother, who seeks to adopt him. In her testimony, C.T. acknowledged that she still was not in a position at the time of trial to be reunited with S.T., but she suggested reunification could be accomplished in phases. She said:
I understand that he [S.T.] does have some problems and I have some problems. I don't expect the courts to turn him over right to me because he has been out of my care for four years. I expect to do like a phasing-in thing where they would let me spend some time with him alone and eventually the weekends and eventually, hopefully, forever, at least until he's eighteen and he can make his own decisions.
A similar acknowledgement - that C.T. is not presently able to fulfill her parental responsibilities - was made by defendant's expert in clinical psychology, Dr. Jesse Whitehead, Jr. Dr. Whitehead testified that C.T. is affected by disabling syndromes and disorders that negatively impact her ability to interact with her environment. He recommended psychiatric and psychological intervention, psychotherapy for each child and assignment of an individual who would be competent to coordinate such treatment modalities for at least a period of one to one and one-half years to be effective. In his view, if the services were not effective in that timeframe, the Division could then fall back on the current plan of termination.
Judge Hoffman, who had heard all the witnesses, had also reviewed the transcripts of the permanency hearing and the reports of all of the expert witnesses. He observed that Dr. Whitehead's long-term plan of rather intense treatment was well-intended but "a little unrealistic under the circumstances of this placement and our requirement that this child is entitled to some type of permanency." The court noted, among other things, that the Division had substantiated neglect on the part of defendant in the past which endangered all of her children; that all of C.T.'s children suffer from a variety of psychological problems; that S.T. has special needs which are being attended to by his current caregiver and that C.T. had not attended to such needs while the children were in her custody; that C.T. suffers from severe mental health issues which render her incapable of parenting at the present time; that C.T. has no stable or permanent home; and that the conditions in her home while she had custody of her children were deplorable, unsafe and unsanitary.
The judge considered, in a factual context, the four factors of the statutory "best interests of the child" standard that was initially articulated in DYFS v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 604-11 (1986) and subsequently codified in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a. Those factors are the following:
(1) The child's safety, health or development have 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.
As to each of the four prongs, Judge Hoffman was satisfied that the Division had met the test by clear and convincing evidence. The judge gave a detailed analysis of the interrelated and overlapping facts relevant to each of the prongs of the best interests test. Based on that analysis, he concluded that "[r]eunification of [S.T.] with his mother, at this time, would jeopardize the progress that he is making on his special needs." He found further that "a separation of [S.T.] from his current care givers would cause serious  emotional or psychological harm," whereas "separation or termination of the parental relationship between [S.T.] and his biological parents would not cause serious and enduring emotional or psychological harm to [S.T.]."
Underlying all of the court's findings and conclusions was the recognition that "[b]y all opinions, reunification between [S.T.] and [C.T.] is not possible in the foreseeable future." As the court saw it, the best case scenario suggested by the expert for defendant was that "perhaps, in a year or a year and a half with no guarantees, [C.T. might be ready to attempt reunification with S.T.] acknowledging that if there's not success then, then termination of parental rights would be the appropriate plan." Such a delay would be contrary to the strong public policy favoring the child's need for permanency and stability. In re Guardianship of J.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 357 (1999). See also In re Guardianship of A.R.G., 318 N.J. Super. 323, 330 (App. Div.) certif. denied, 162 N.J. 127 (1999) (refusing to delay a permanent resolution until such time, if ever, that the mother was finally prepared to function as a parent for her children).
In reviewing the findings 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. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)). Based upon such a review of the record in this case, we are satisfied that Judge Hoffman made detailed and well-reasoned findings and conclusions in his comprehensive oral opinion rendered on June 1, 2006, which amply support the judgment entered on that same date.