February 4, 2008
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF B.L., AKA B.B.L., AKA K.L., A MINOR.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, FN-07-237-05K.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 5, 2007
Before Judges Parker and R. B. Coleman.
Defendant J.L. appeals from the March 1, 2007 judgment of guardianship entered in the Chancery Division, Essex County, Family Part. That judgment terminated J.L.'s parental rights to her son, K.L., and awarded guardianship to the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) to consent to the adoption of K.L. and to act fully and completely as Guardian of his person and property.
On March 3, 2006, DYFS filed a complaint against J.L. and K.B., K.L.'s biological father, seeking to terminate their parental rights to K.L., pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15 to -20. The court entered default judgments against both J.L. and K.B., and involuntarily terminated their parental rights on June 22, 2006; however, defendant J.L. successfully filed a motion to vacate the order of guardianship to the extent it purports to terminate her parental rights. K.B. took no steps to challenge the June 22, 2006 judgment and that judgment against him continues to be in effect. As to the rights of J.L., on January 22, 23 and 30, 2007, Judge Margaret Hayden conducted a trial. Thereafter, on March 1, 2007, the judge issued a written opinion and the order from which J.L. has appealed to this court.
J.L. was addicted to drugs at the time of K.L.'s November 3, 2004 birth, and her struggle with addiction continues. K.L. also tested positive for cocaine at the time of his birth. After determining that J.L. was unable to provide care for K.L., and after learning that K.L.'s maternal grandmother was not able to take custody, DYFS placed K.L. in the custody of an approved foster family. K.L. has been in their custody ever since, and they have expressed a desire to adopt him.
As noted, J.L. continues to be addicted to drugs and K.L. was addicted at birth. "[A] child born addicted to drugs and suffering from the symptoms of drug withdrawal as a result of [the] mother's substance abuse during pregnancy has been harmed by [the] mother and that harm endangers the child's health and development." In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 349 (1999). Despite various and varied offers of assistance from the State, J.L. has not demonstrated that she is capable of recovering from her addictions or deteriorating mental conditions. J.L. does not contend that she is now able to provide care and nurture for K.L. Instead, she urges what she contends is an appropriate alternate placement to forestall the termination of her parental rights.
J.L. has given birth to eight children. None of them are in J.L.'s custody and care. Five of the children have been placed in the custody of J.L.'s oldest son, twenty-three-year-old, Jm.L. At trial and in this appeal, defendant's principal contention is that K.L. should be placed with Jm.L. as well. J.L. asserts that the adverse decision by the court is based on institutional and stereotypical gender biases and that DYFS failed to satisfy the four prongs of the best interests test by clear and convincing evidence. See N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1; New Jersey Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 604-11 (1986). The record contains no support for that assertion.
Although Jm.L. expressed some interest in taking custody of K.L., DYFS found Jm.L. logistically incapable of caring for yet another sibling. Jm.L. also failed to attend several scheduled visits with K.L., as well as a bonding evaluation session.
On appeal, a reviewing court must determine whether a trial court's decision in respect of termination of parental rights was based on clear and convincing evidence supported by the record before the court. That review is limited, however, and a trial court's factual findings "should not be disturbed unless they are so wholly unsupportable as to result in a denial of justice." [New Jersey Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. P.P., 180 N.J. 494, 511 (2004) (quoting In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002)).]
The record below fully supports the trial court's findings and conclusions; therefore, we affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Hayden in her well-reasoned and comprehensive opinion of March 1, 2007. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A).
We only comment further to concur with a sentiment expressed by the trial judge that J.L.'s oldest child, Jm.L., is to be commended for the devotion he has demonstrated to his other siblings. Nevertheless, we also concur with the trial judge's determination that the burden on Jm.L. is already so daunting that it would be unreasonable and unrealistic to ask more of him. More importantly, it would not be in K.L.'s best interests.
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