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M.F. v. Dep't of Human Services

July 18, 2007

M.F., APPELLANT,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, DIVISION OF FAMILY DEVELOPMENT, RESPONDENT.



On appeal from a Final Decision of the Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development, HPW-2424-05 M.F.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Miniman, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued January 16, 2007

Before Judges Lintner, S.L. Reisner and C.L. Miniman.

M.F. appeals the final decision of the Division of Family Development (DFD), Department of Human Services (DHS), rejecting the decision of the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) and affirming the action of the Camden County Board of Social Services (CCBSS). The CCBSS terminated the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefit component of the Work First New Jersey (WFNJ) program*fn1 that it had been paying for the benefit of J.M., a minor, prior to the death of J.M.'s mother because there was no blood or legal relationship between J.M. and M.F., a prerequisite for receipt of TANF benefits. We affirm.

I.

J.M. was born on June 28, 1995, to D.M. They both began to reside with M.F. in 1996. J.M. was not the biological son of M.F. J.M. is a special-needs child diagnosed with a specific learning disability who attends a special education class. M.F. and D.M. had one child in common, M.F., Jr., who was born after they began to cohabit. Although they never married, M.F. and D.M. lived together continuously as a family unit with the two children until the sudden, unexpected death of D.M. on March 5, 2005, from a brain aneurism. M.F. at all relevant times provided J.M. with financial and emotional support. Prior to D.M.'s death, M.F. was receiving $305 per month in TANF benefits for both children. Effective March 1, 2005, the CCBSS reduced the TANF benefits payable to M.F. to $154 on the ground that there was no blood or legal relationship between M.F. and J.M.

It is undisputed that M.F. never adopted J.M., nor did he secure a judgment granting him legal guardianship. After D.M.'s death J.M. continued to live with M.F., who continued to provide J.M. with financial and emotional support and in all respects acted as J.M.'s father. Indeed, M.F. and J.M. apparently have a bonded parent-child relationship similar to that of father and son. No able and willing blood relatives have made themselves available to care for J.M. J.M.'s putative biological father*fn2 passed away in 2004. Prior to his death, he had no relationship with J.M. and provided no financial support for him.

After the death of D.M., the CCBSS notified M.F. on March 17, 2005, that his benefits changed from $305 to $154 effective March 1, 2005. M.F. timely appealed the CCBSS determination and the matter was referred to the OAL as a contested case. M.F. and the CCBSS agreed to submit the case on stipulated facts and sought a legal determination by the OAL of the impact of V.C. v. M.J.B., 163 N.J. 200, cert. denied, 531 U.S. 926, 121 S.Ct. 302, 148 L.Ed. 2d 243 (2000), on the proper interpretation of the term "legally related" as used in N.J.S.A. 44:10-34 and N.J.A.C. 10:90-2.7(a). The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concluded that our Supreme Court's recognition of the legal rights of a "psychological parent" to custody and visitation, V.C., supra, 163 N.J. at 230, should apply to the interpretation of the term "legally related" as used in the WFNJ/TANF. As a consequence, the ALJ concluded that the stipulated facts supported a conclusion that M.F. was a "psychological parent" to J.M. and that such a parent was "legally related" within the meaning of the WFNJ/TANF, entitling M.F. to TANF benefits for J.M.

On appeal by the CCBSS, the DFD Director rejected the decision of the ALJ, holding that "an assistance unit can not receive WFNJ/TANF benefits unless a blood or legal relationship has been established. Because there is no blood or legal relationship between [M.F.] and J.M., . . . the agency acted correctly by denying him WFNJ/TANF benefits for J.M." Accordingly, the DFD Director affirmed the determination of the CCBSS. This appeal followed.

M.F. raises the following arguments for our consideration:

I. APPELLANT IS ENTITLED TO BENEFITS FOR THE CHILD PURSUANT TO NEW JERSEY'S DOCTRINE OF DE FACTO OR PSYCHOLOGICAL PARENTHOOD.

II. BECAUSE APPELLANT AND [J.M.] ARE LEGALLY RELATED BY VIRTUE OF APPELLANT'S STATUS AS A DE FACTO OR PSYCHOLOGICAL PARENT PURSUANT TO NEW JERSEY LAW, THEY CONSTITUTE AN ASSISTANCE UNIT UNDER N.J.S.A. 44:10-34 AND, THEREFORE, ARE ENTITLED TO ASSISTANCE UNDER THE WFNJ STATUTE.

III. THE STATE[']S REGULATORY INTERPRETATION OF THE STATUTE IS CONTRARY TO THE EXPRESS PURPOSE OF THE ENABLING STATUTE.

IV. THE POSSIBILITY THAT APPELLANT MAY BE ELIGIBLE FOR BENEFITS AS A KINSHIP GUARDIAN DOES NOT MEAN THAT HE CANNOT BE ELIGIBLE FOR WFNJ/TANJ BENEFITS AS THE CHILD'S DE FACTO OR PSYCHOLOGICAL PARENT.

In response to our request for additional briefing, M.F. also makes the following arguments:

I. J.M. IS ENTITLED TO BENEFITS AS A "DEPENDENT CHILD ONLY" PURSUANT TO N.J.S.A. 44:10-34 REGARDLESS OF THE STATUS OF ANY ADULTS WHO MAY BE LIVING WITH HIM AND REGARDLESS OF RESPONDENT'S INTERPRETATION OF THE APPLICABLE ENABLING REGULATIONS.

II. IN THE ALTERNATIVE, J.M. IS ENTITLED TO TANF BENEFITS BASED ON APPELLANT'S STATUS AS A NON-NEEDY CARETAKER PURSUANT TO N.J.[A.C.] 10:90-2.7(a)[(3)(i)](2).

III. EVEN IF THE RELEVANT STATUTE (N.J.S.A. 44:10-34) COULD BE DEEMED TO BE AMBIGUOUS IN ITS MEANING OR PURPOSE, IT MUST BE INTERPRETED IN APPELLANT'S FAVOR, SINCE TO DO OTHERWISE WOULD BE INCONSISTENT WITH THE OVERARCHING LEGISLATIVE PURPOSE OF THE WFNJ STATUTORY SCHEME.

II.

Eleven years ago, the United States Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (the PRWOR Act). Pub. L. No. 104-193, 100 Stat. 2105. The PRWOR Act abolished the program for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replaced it with a block-grant funding program designated as TANF. The purpose of the program "is to increase the flexibility of States in operating a program designed to . . . provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives." 42 U.S.C.A. § 601(a). The Federal TANF regulations, 45 C.F.R. §§ 260.10 to 260.40 (2007), do not define "family" due to the strict limitations on federal regulatory power imposed by the PRWOR Act. 42 U.S.C.A. § 617. The PRWOR Act, thus, leaves the definition of "family" to the states.

The following year New Jersey adopted the Work First New Jersey Act (the WFNJ Act). L. 1997, c. 38*fn3 (codified as amended at N.J.S.A. 44:10-55 to -78). The Legislature found that the PRWOR Act "establishes the federal block grant for temporary assistance for needy families and provides the opportunity for a state to establish and design its own welfare program."

N.J.S.A. 44:10-56(a). It also found that "[w]ork and the earning of income promote the best interests of families and children [and] [w]orking individuals and families needing temporary assistance should have the transitional support necessary to obtain and keep a job in order to be able to avoid cycling back onto public assistance." N.J.S.A. 44:10-56(b), (c). The Legislature declared, in part, that: The Work First New Jersey program established pursuant to this act incorporates and builds upon the fundamental concepts of the Family Development Initiative established pursuant to P.L. 1991, c. 523 (C.44:10-19 et seq.) in a manner that is consistent with the federal program of temporary assistance for needy families, by establishing requirements for: time limits on cash assistance; the participation of recipients in work activities; enhanced efforts to establish paternity and establish and enforce child support obligations . . . . [N.J.S.A. 44:10-56(h).]

The WFNJ Act defined the term "assistance unit" to mean "a single person without dependent children; a couple without dependent children; dependent children only; or a person or couple with one or more dependent children who are legally or blood-related, or who is their legal guardian, and who live together as a household unit." N.J.S.A. 44:10-57. Thus, to be considered a family for WFNJ/TANF purposes, the family must meet the criteria for an eligible assistance unit. "Benefits" were defined to mean "any assistance provided to needy persons and their dependent children and needy single persons and couples without dependent children under the Work First New Jersey program." Ibid. The term "dependent child" was defined as follows:

"Dependent child" means a child:

a. under the age of 18;

b. under the age of 19 and a full-time student in a secondary school or an equivalent level of vocational or technical training, if, before the student attains age 19, the student may reasonably be expected to complete ...


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