On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Passaic County, Docket No. FG-16-25-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Payne and Lihotz.
Defendant F.P., the father of the two children who are the subject of this litigation, appeals from the Family Part judgment entered on June 12, 2006, which terminated his parental rights. By that same order, the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division) was awarded guardianship of L.P., born May 23, 2003, and R.P., born November 19, 2004, for purposes of consenting to adoption. On appeal, F.P. argues succinctly that the Division failed to meet its statutory burden of proof, by clear and convincing evidence, to sustain a judgment to terminate his parental rights. We disagree and affirm.
Our Legislature has recognized the importance of strengthening and preserving the integrity of family life, but it has also recognized that "the health and safety of the child shall be the State's paramount concern when making a decision on whether or not it is in the child's best interest to preserve the family unit." N.J.S.A. 30:4C-1(a). Understanding that the right of a parent to enjoy a relationship with his child is of constitutional dimension, N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. C.S., 367 N.J. Super. 76, 109-10 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 180 N.J. 456 (2004), the burden rests on the Division "to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence" that the serious risk of "lasting harm to the child" is so severe as to require the severance of parental ties. In Re Guardianship of J.C., 129 N.J. 1, 10 (1992).
The best interests standard, initially formulated by the Court in N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Serv's. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 604-11 (1986), is determined by a four-pronged statutory test, which the trial court correctly applied. The test, set forth in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a), requires the Division to prove:
(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. [N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a).]
These requirements are not discrete; they overlap to provide a composite picture of what may be necessary to advance the best interests of the children. The considerations involved in determining parental fitness are extremely fact sensitive and require particularized evidence that addresses the specific circumstances present in each case. In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 346-48 (1999).
The Division became involved with L.P. and R.P. on November 19, 2004, when R.P. was found to have cocaine and opiates in his system at birth. Throughout the period of the Division's involvement, the children's mother, B.A., remained drug-addicted. The current litigation commenced when DYFS filed its complaint on January 13, 2006. When the trial began on June 8, 2006, B.A. executed an identified surrender of her parental rights to ...