On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FG-02-51-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Gilroy and Lihotz.
R.T., the father of three children: R.E.T, Jr., born on February 14, 1995, B.A.T., born on August 20, 1996, and S.A.T., born on January 21, 2006, appeals from the final judgment of the Family Part terminating his parental rights and awarding guardianship to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division) for purposes of consenting to adoption. The judgment additionally terminated the parental rights of C.T., the children's mother. She has not appealed.
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-1a. The best interest 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), and codified in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a, requires the State to establish each of the following standards by clear and convincing evidence before parental rights may be severed:
(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-15.1a.]
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).
On appeal, R.T. presents the following arguments for our consideration:
THE DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES FAILED TO MEET ITS BURDEN TO ESTABLISH EACH OF THE FOUR PRONGS OF N.J.S.A. 30:4[(C)]-15.1 WITH REGARD TO THE BIOLOGICAL FATHER, R.T., AND, THEREFORE, HIS PARENTAL RIGHTS SHOULD BE REINSTATED.
THE TRIAL JUDGE IMPROPERLY RULED AS TO THE ADMISSIBILITY OF HEARSAY EVIDENCE.
THE TRIAL JUDGE IMPROPERLY ADMITTED INTO EVIDENCE DOCUMENTS REGARDING UNSUBSTANTIATED OR UNFOUNDED CLAIMS OF WHICH THE PROBATIVE VALUE IS SUBSTANTIALLY OUTWEIGHED BY THE PREJUDICIAL NATURE OF THE EVIDENCE.
During the three-day guardianship trial, DYFS presented the testimony of its case worker; a school social worker, and a Bergen County Prosecutor's Office detective, who each interviewed B.A.T. regarding allegations of sexual abuse by R.T.; a therapist at the Bergen Family Center who supervised the initial joint and individual therapy of B.A.T. and R.E.T.; and its expert, Alice S. Nadelman, Ph.D., who performed psychological evaluations of R.T. and C.T., and bonding assessments of the children. The Division also entered as evidence its case file from all past and current ...