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New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. G.M.

February 22, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FG 02-80-06.

Per curiam.



Submitted January 24, 2008

Before Judges Lisa, Lihotz, and Simonelli.

Defendant, G.M., appeals from a Family Part judgment terminating her parental rights to her daughter, K.N., and awarding guardianship of K.N. 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 M.B., the child's father. M.B. has not appealed that determination.

On appeal, G.M. urges reversal of the trial court's decision arguing the Division failed to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that G.M. harmed her child and that DYFS extended sufficient services to G.M., each of which is a necessary element to end the parent-child relationship. N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). Further, G.M. contends the trial court's decision impermissibly relied upon hearsay to reach the legal conclusions. 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 clear and convincing evidence and its conclusions predicated on those findings are legally sound. We affirm.

When reviewing judgments to terminate parental rights, we remain mindful that 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). Nevertheless, 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. Thus, the fundamental right of a parent to enjoy a relationship with a child is not absolute. Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 1394, 71 L.Ed. 2d 599, 606 (1982); In re Adoption of Children by G.P.B. Jr., 161 N.J. 396, 404 (1999); In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 347 (1999).

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 interests 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.

We must defer to a trial judge's findings of fact if supported by clear and convincing 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 189. Despite such circumstances, deference will still be accorded to the trial judge's findings unless it is determined that they went so wide of the mark that the judge was clearly mistaken. Id. at 188. With these standards in mind, we proceed with our analysis.

G.M., a native of Cape Town, South Africa, emigrated to the United States at age thirty-four in 1995. Since her teenage years, G.M. has been involved in abusive and violent relationships. G.M. reports she suffered abuse: at age nineteen, while residing with her aunt and uncle; at the hands of the father of her two older children during their fifteen-year relationship; while married to her estranged husband; and during her relationship with M.B., K.N.'s father.

K.N. was born on May 7, 2001. On August 1, 2002, a worker at the Inter-Religious Fellowship Family Shelter in Englewood, New Jersey, notified DYFS. The worker explained the shelter was discharging G.M. because she abused alcohol, and exhibited erratic behavior, with drastic mood swings resulting in altercations with other families in the shelter.

The Division caseworker interviewed G.M. and explained that DYFS would not allow K.N. to sleep on the streets. G.M. admitted that she had an alcohol problem and handed K.N. over to the worker stating, "Just take her. I'll be better off." When the caseworker presented the available alternative living arrangements, G.M. stated "that if someone made her live in a hotel she would kill herself." The police were called to escort G.M. to the hospital for a psychological evaluation and the Division exercised an emergency removal of K.N., pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.29 and N.J.S.A. 9:6.30. DYFS ...

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