On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FG-02-70-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Weissbard and Lihotz.
Defendant, D.G., who is the mother of R.B., born February 18, 2004, appeals from the Family Part judgment, entered on October 31, 2006, which terminated her parental rights. By that same order, the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division) was awarded guardianship of R.B. for the purposes of consenting to adoption. R.B.'s father has not appealed the default judgment terminating his parental rights, entered on June 2, 2006.
On appeal, D.G. argues that the trial judge's determination was against the weight of the evidence, and that DYFS failed to search for relatives who could provide for and support R.B., as required by N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12.1. We disagree with these contentions and affirm the Family Part judgment.
Parents have a constitutionally protected fundamental liberty interest in raising their children, which is protected by both the Federal Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution. N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. C.S., 367 N.J. Super. 76, 109 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 180 N.J. 456 (2004). Yet, the exercise of parental rights is not absolute. The State holds "a parens patriae responsibility to protect children from the probability of serious physical, emotional or psychological harm resulting from the action or inaction of their parents." Id. at 110; see also In re Guardianship of J.C., 129 N.J. 1, 10 (1992). Our Legislature has recognized this responsibility, and has stated that "the health and safety of the child shall be the State's paramount concern when making a decision on whether  it is in [a] child's best interest to preserve the family unit." N.J.S.A. 30:4C-1(a). This "best interests standard," initially formulated by the Court in N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 604-11 (1986), is determined by a four-pronged statutory test, set forth in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a), which requires the Division to prove by clear and convincing evidence that:
(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).]
The four criteria enumerated in the best interests standard are not discrete and separate; they relate to and overlap one another to provide a standard that identifies the child's best interests. In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 348 (1999). The considerations involved in determining parental fitness are "extremely fact sensitive" and require "particularized evidence that addresses the specific circumstances" present in each case. Id. at 348 (quoting In re Adoption of Child by L.A.S., 134 N.J. 127, 139 (1993)). 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. Ibid.; see also N.J.S.A. 30:4C-1(a).
The Division first became involved with D.G. and her children on April 15, 2004, when she brought two-month-old R.B. to Meadowlands Hospital. Hospital personnel called the Division after D.G. became defensive and refused to provide necessary personal information, including her address and social security number. The Division learned that D.G. and her three children, R.B., K.G., and K.M.G., were living in a friend's trailer without electricity and sufficient sleeping quarters. The Division arranged for the family to stay in a motel, temporarily. DYFS referred D.G. to Family Preservation Services for medical and housing assistance. D.G. secured a separate residence by May 5, 2004. The Division remained involved with the ...