On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, FG-7-278-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Skillman and LeWinn.
These are consolidated appeals from a final judgment terminating defendants' parental rights to their minor children, J.P., born February 2, 2003, and M.P., born January 27, 2005. M.B. is the natural mother of these children, and E.P. is their natural father. Following a four-day trial, the court rendered its decision and entered the termination order on September 15, 2006.
Having reviewed the trial record, we conclude the trial judge's decision is soundly based on substantial credible evidence of record and, therefore, should not be disturbed on appeal. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). An appellate court should not overturn the factual findings of a trial judge unless "they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice[.]" Ibid. An appellate court should accord particular deference to a family court's fact finding, in recognition of that court's "special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (1998).
Here, Judge John Callahan rendered a comprehensive and thorough bench opinion, in which he addressed the statutory standards governing termination of parental rights, N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a)(1) to (4), as well as pertinent case law. In reaching his conclusions, the trial judge appropriately applied the controlling legal principles to the lay and expert evidence of record. Defendants' claims to the contrary are without merit. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).
We affirm for the reasons set forth in Judge Callahan's opinion as set forth on the record on September 15, 2006. We add the following comments.
Defendants, though never married, had been in a relationship for about seven years as of the time of trial. M.B., then thirty-six years old, had six other children prior to her relationship with E.P. Those children all reside with M.B.'s mother. The record clearly established M.B.'s longstanding drug addiction problems, including her use of cocaine while pregnant with both J.P. and M.P.
The New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) became involved with M.B. shortly before J.P.'s birth. Because that child was born with traces of cocaine in her system, DYFS placed a "hold" on the baby in the hospital and, with M.B.'s consent, released J.P. to the custody of E.P. and the maternal grandmother. DYFS required that M.B.'s parenting time with J.P. be supervised by E.P. or her mother. DYFS also made it clear to both defendants that J.P. would remain in this custodial arrangement only so long as they each complied with DYFS-required services. These services included a drug treatment program for M.B., and employment and housing assistance for E.P. as well as a drug and alcohol screening.
Unbeknownst to DYFS, E.P. removed J.P. from the maternal grandmother's residence and moved into a transitional housing unit with the child and M.B. When DYFS learned of this, on March 23, 2004, the caseworker immediately returned J.P. to the maternal grandmother's residence. E.P. claimed he believed DYFS' case plan permitted the move. However, as the trial judge noted in his decision, this belief was clearly inconsistent with the express terms of the case plan.
When defendants again removed J.P. from the maternal grandmother's residence in May 2004, the grandmother contacted DYFS and requested that J.P. be placed in foster care. The DYFS caseworker agreed and immediately removed J.P. from defendants' custody and placed her in foster care. J.P. was placed in her current foster home at the age of fifteen months.
Defendants appeared before the trial court on May 24, 2004, at which time whey were ordered to complete parenting classes and undergo psychological and drug evaluations. They were afforded weekly visitation with J.P. at DYFS' offices; however, their attendance at those visitation sessions was sporadic and inconsistent. In August 2004, following a fact-finding hearing, the trial court concluded that J.P. had been born drug-exposed and that E.P. had refused to submit to the DYFS-required drug screening. The DYFS caseworker referred both ...