On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FG-15-5-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 13, 2008
Before Judges Coburn and Fuentes.
Defendants J.P.C. (father) and E.E.C. (mother) appeal from the final judgment of the Family Part terminating their parental rights to their son, J.P.C., Jr.. The child was three years old at the time the court rendered its decision; defendants were twenty-six and twenty-eight years old respectively.
E.E.C. has a long history of involvement with the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), which has included all five of her children, whom she has conceived with three separate men. She has a chronic substance abuse problem which has been at the core of her difficulties in managing her personal affairs. In fact, she was arrested for possession of marijuana shortly after J.P.C., Jr. was born. Although this incident did not directly jeopardize the child's safety, (J.P.C., Jr. was in the care of his maternal grandmother at the time), these types of events unquestionably undermine E.E.C.'s ability to parent. E.E.C. has also had a disturbing pattern of associating with men who have engaged in domestic violence.
DYFS obtained protective custody of J.P.C., Jr. on October 25, 2004. The trial court found that DFYS's intervention was prompted by an incident of domestic violence between E.E.C. and defendant J.P.C. At the time, E.E.C. was also evicted from a transitional housing program for violation of institutional rules, including testing positive for alcohol and not attending counseling sessions.
Defendant J.P.C. was incarcerated during most of the time of DYFS's involvement with his son. He contacted DYFS upon his release in August 2005, to attempt to establish a relationship with the child. Tragically, J.P.C. was shot and seriously injured by E.E.C.'s paramour shortly thereafter. J.P.C. was also seriously injured in an automobile accident, in which he admitted to the court that he was driving in excess of 120 mph. From August 2005 to February 2006, both parents continued to see their child through supervised visits.
Two psychologists testified in favor of termination of parental rights. Dr. Alan J. Lee testified as a witness for DFYS; Dr. Margaret Beekman was called by the Law Guardian. Dr. Lee evaluated E.E.C. on March 16, 2006, for the purpose of describing her "psychological and emotional functioning, with particular regard to parenting and caretaking capacity, and to make relevant treatment and management recommendations." Despite noting her participation in anger management counseling and parenting skills classes, Dr. Lee opined that E.E.C. remained incapable of successfully functioning as an individual, and was thus ill-suited to parent her children, and in particular J.P.C., Jr. Dr. Lee concluded that any permanency plan for the child should not involve reunification with E.E.C.
Dr. Lee also conducted a bonding evaluation with respect to the child and his parents. In his opinion, there was no evidence of an emotional or psychological bond between the child and defendants. Dr. Beekman concurred with Dr. Lee's findings and reached a similar conclusion with respect to any future plans for the child J.P.C., Jr.
Psychologist Dr. David F. Bogacki testified on behalf of E.E.C. In his view, E.E.C. was capable of parenting her son if she was given sufficient support services to obtain and maintain adequate housing and to avoid a recurrence of self-destructive behavior. He opined that there was a clear bond between E.E.C. and her son. Defendant J.P.C. called psychologist Dr. George M. Kapalka as an expert witness on the issue of bonding and J.P.C.'s capacity to parent. He disputed the findings reached and recommendations made by the two psychologists in favor of termination. Dr. Kapalka found a "strong bond" between J.P.C. and his son.
In a detailed and comprehensive oral opinion issued from the bench on September 27, 2006, Judge Strelecki reviewed the evidence presented and concluded that DYFS had met all of the legal requirements for an order of guardianship. Her opinion tracks the statutory requirements of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1, accords with In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337 (1999), In re Guardianship of D.M.H., 161 N.J. 365 (1999) and New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591 (1986), and is supported by the record, Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). The court's factual findings "'should not be disturbed unless they are so wholly ...