On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FG-15-21-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff, Lihotz and Simonelli.
H.D. appeals from a Family Part judgment terminating parental rights to his child, V.D., and awarding guardianship of V.D. to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division) for the purpose of consenting to adoption. The guardianship judgment also terminated the parental rights of Z.D., the child's mother. Z.D. has not appealed that determination. In his appeal, H.D. maintains that the Division failed to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, three of the four interrelated elements necessary to end the parent-child relationship, as provided by N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). Further, H.D. urges reversal of the trial court's decision arguing that the factual findings relied upon to reach the trial judge's legal conclusions are unsupported by the evidence in the record. After reviewing the record and the applicable law in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we conclude that the trial court's findings are supported by substantial, credible evidence and its conclusions predicated on those findings are legally sound. Accordingly, we affirm.
Both the federal and state constitutions protect the integrity of the family unit. Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 1212-13, 31 L.Ed. 2d 551, 558-59 (1972); N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 599 (1986). However, the fundamental right of a parent to enjoy a relationship with his child is not absolute. In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 347 (1999); In re Adoption of Children by G.P.B., Jr., 161 N.J. 396, 404 (1999); Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 1394, 71 L.Ed. 2d 599, 606 (1982).
The State's role of parens patriae, historically imposes a responsibility to protect the welfare of children from the probability of serious physical, emotional or psychological harm resulting from the actions or omissions of their parents. N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. C.S., 367 N.J. Super. 76, 110 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 180 N.J. 456 (2004). See also N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.8a. Our Legislature has 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). The best interest standard, initially formulated by the Court in A.W., supra, 103 N.J. at 604-11, and codified in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a), 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-15.1(a).]
These requirements are not discrete, but 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. K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 346-48.
In our review of a decision to terminate parental rights, we must defer to a trial judge's findings of fact if supported by adequate, substantial, and credible evidence in the record. N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. P.P., 180 N.J. 494, 511 (2004); In re Guardianship of J.T., 269 N.J. Super. 172, 188 (App. Div. 1993). Particular deference is afforded to decisions on issues of credibility. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-13 (1998). There is an exception to that general rule of deference: we expand the scope of our review where the issue to be decided is an "alleged error in the trial judge's evaluation of the underlying facts and the implications to be drawn therefrom." J.T., supra, 269 N.J. Super. at 188-89. Despite such circumstances, deference will still be ...