February 21, 2008
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF S.J.F., A MINOR.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-86-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 4, 2008
Before Judges A.A. Rodríguez, C.S. Fisher and C.L. Miniman.
The Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) brought this action, seeking the termination of defendant R.F.'s parental rights to her daughter, S.J.F., who was born on February 22, 2004.*fn1 Following a non-jury trial, Judge Lee B. Laskin rendered a written decision and entered judgment in favor of the Division. In appealing, defendant argues that the decision to terminate her parental rights was against the weight of the evidence and failed to meet the requirements of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1. We find no merit in defendant's arguments and affirm.
At the conclusion of the trial, the judge rendered a written decision, which included many factual findings and which thoroughly described the application of his factual findings to the four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1. For there to be a termination of parental rights, this statute requires that the Division prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that:
(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 . . .;
(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. See also N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 604-05 (1986).
The testimony and other evidence adduced at trial reveals that, at birth, the child tested positive for cocaine and opiates. She was also then suffering from withdrawal symptoms and classified as a medically fragile infant. Following the hospital's referral, the child was removed from defendant's care soon after birth.
The record demonstrated that defendant had a significant history with the Division and a longstanding history of drug abuse and incarceration that preceded the child's birth.*fn2 To support her drug addiction, defendant unlawfully sold controlled dangerous substances (CDS) and, beginning in 1995, was convicted on three separate occasions of drug-related charges. The month after the child's birth, defendant was arrested for possession and distribution of CDS. On July 8, 2004, defendant pled guilty to possession of CDS within 1,000 feet of school property and was sentenced to a three-year prison term. She was not released from prison until March 19, 2007. Although defendant had been engaged in drug treatment at the time of trial, the prognosis was not then known.
Among his many findings, Judge Laskin properly expressed a "strong concern" for the well-being of the child:
[Dr. Schwoeri] advises me that [S.J.F.] has already experienced attachment disruptions due to the necessary moves. He states that she is now in a stable home and has been there for over six months. She has been showing some indications of develop-mental attachment related problems, secondary to the instability and inconsistencies she has already experienced. He made it a point to warn me that moves in this developmental period are especially disruptive to a child's development and could have significant and long-term negative effects. [S.J.F.] is just beginning to settle into her current caregiver's home. He made it very clear to me that another move would be very disruptive to her and would cause serious and enduring harm. Additionally, [defendant's] stability and ability to remain drug free is not yet established. He opined that there is still a risk of relapse of an undetermined but above average extent.
Bear in mind that [defendant] is an absolute stranger to [S.J.F.]. [S.J.F.] would need to establish a relationship if she were reunited with her mother, bearing in mind, that this is a mother that she has never known. Dr. Schwoeri make it very clear that another move to her mother's care at this time would be disruptive to [S.J.F.]. He concluded that there is significant risk of harm by potentially having to remove [S.J.F.], once again, if her mother relapsed. "This would be psychologically and developmentally catastrophic for [S.J.F.]." He recommended that DYFS pursue an adoption case plan for [S.J.F.] and minimize any further moves.
Judge Laskin found that defendant "has never shown an interest, whatsoever, in seeing her child, being with her child or knowing anything about her child." Even though any potential relationship was complicated by defendant's incarceration, the judge observed that defendant made no attempt to learn from the Division of the child's well-being or to inquire, during her term of incarceration, about the child. In this regard, the judge wrote:
Another rather significant factor is that [defendant] has never contacted her caseworker. Isn't that amazing when we consider that [defendant] should show to the [c]court how she has improved her prior lifestyle, that she has developed some maturity, that she is more than able to be a mother to [S.J.F.]. Wouldn't you think that [defendant] should have contacted her caseworker for some kind of help, assistance, information, etc.? [Defendant] has done nothing to establish contact with her child, until most recently.
Judge Laskin concluded, on the basis of these and his many other findings, and by application of the clear and convincing standard, that the child should not be placed in defendant's care, that there "is no relationship" between defendant and the child, and that "[t]he termination of parental rights will certainly not do more harm than good for [the child]. In fact, it's just the opposite."
The applicable standard of appellate review requires that we defer to a trial judge's factual findings when they are based on credible evidence in the record and unless we are convinced those findings are "so wholly unsupportable as to result in a denial of justice." In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002); Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). After careful review, we conclude that the record contains clear and convincing evidence to support Judge Laskin's findings. We also conclude that Judge Laskin thoughtfully applied the correct legal standards to the facts he found in ultimately concluding that all four statutory prongs were met and that termination was required. Accordingly, we discern from the record no sound reason for disturbing the judge's findings and affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in his comprehensive and insightful written decision.