March 31, 2008
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
M.C.,*FN1 M.K., AND M.B., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.
IN THE MATTER OF J.C., A MINOR.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FN-07-501-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued telephonically March 14, 2008
Before Judges Lintner and Graves.
On May 23, 2007, the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division) "received a referral from a counselor at The Bridge counseling center" concerning J.C., a fifteen-year-old female. According to the counselor, J.C. disclosed she had "been slapped several times across her face by her father, [M.C.]," and M.C. had struck his daughter "with a belt near her thigh region on several occasions." The counselor also reported J.C. had been referred to The Bridge for counseling after J.C. "was found to have the prescription medication Adderall in her possession," and she "ingested half of the dose" while on a high school field trip.
On June 15, 2007, DYFS reported to the trial court that the allegations of physical abuse were "unfounded," and M.C. obtained a court order requiring the Division to immediately expunge the unfounded allegations of abuse from its records. However, in a subsequent order dated August 7, 2007, the court ordered the "Division to expunge the record according to the relevant provisions of the [New Jersey Administrative Code]." This appeal followed. After reviewing the record in light of the arguments advanced on appeal, we affirm.
At the outset, we restate applicable legal principles that inform our analysis. The right of parents to enjoy a relationship with their children is constitutionally protected. In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 346 (1999). Parents have a fundamental liberty interest in raising their children. Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 1394, 71 L.Ed. 2d 599, 606 (1982). Both the federal and state constitutions protect the inviolability of the family unit. See 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 & Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 599 (1986).
"The law's concept of the family rests on a presumption that parents possess what a child lacks in maturity, experience, and capacity for judgment required for making life's difficult decisions." Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 602, 99 S.Ct. 2493, 2504, 61 L.Ed. 2d 101, 118 (1979). Nonetheless, this presumption is not always true. "[E]xperience and reality may rebut what the law accepts as a starting point . . . ." Id. at 602, 99 S.Ct. at 2504, 61 L.Ed. 2d at 119. As evidenced by child abuse and neglect cases, some parents may act against the interests of their children. Ibid. Thus, "[p]arental rights, though fundamentally important, are not absolute. The constitutional protection surrounding family rights is tempered by the State's parens patriae responsibility to protect the welfare of children." K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 347.
Under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12:
Whenever it shall appear that the parent or parents . . . having custody and control of any child within this State is unfit to be entrusted with the care and education of such child, or shall fail to provide such child with proper protection, maintenance and education, or shall fail to ensure the health and safety of the child, or is endangering the welfare of such child, a written or oral complaint may be filed with the [D]ivision . . . . Upon receipt of a complaint . . . the [D]ivision . . . shall investigate . . . the statements set forth in such complaint.
Thus, as a result of the referral from a counselor at The Bridge, which was premised on J.C.'s statements that her father slapped her and hit her with a belt, the Division had a statutory obligation to conduct an investigation.
When J.C. was interviewed by a DYFS caseworker on May 24, 2007, she told the caseworker her father was not abusive, and she did not want to be removed from the home. She also stated "that she and her siblings were properly clothed and fed and that they all got along well." Nevertheless, after defendant refused to cooperate with the investigation, DYFS filed an Order to Show Cause for Investigation pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12, R. 4:67-1, and R. 5:12-1. On June 4, 2007, the trial court ordered defendant to cooperate with the Division's investigation, and, when M.C. was interviewed, he admitted using "a belt as a discipline method as a result of his daughter snorting the drug [A]dderall on a school field trip." Upon completion of its investigation, the Division "concluded that the allegations of physical abuse against [J.C.] by her father [M.C.] should be unfounded because the incidents did not rise to the level of excessive corporal punishment. However, the Division does have child welfare concerns and will request that he engage in counseling with his daughter." In a letter to the court dated June 16, 2007, M.C.'s attorney stated, "[t]he Division's request that [M.C.] engage in counseling with his daughter . . . is unnecessary as he has been making such arrangements."
At a court review hearing on June 18, 2007, the Deputy Attorney General advised the Family Part judge that "although the allegations were unfounded . . . there are child welfare concerns." During the hearing, M.C.'s attorney asked the court whether M.C.'s records could be expunged, and the Deputy Attorney General advised the court "there has to be a passage of time before the [A]gency would expunge their records." Nevertheless, the court ordered the Division to expunge its records within two weeks after M.C. provided certain information requested by the Division.
On July 3, 2007, however, the Division filed a motion for reconsideration of the court's ruling, and the matter was considered by the court on August 7, 2007. During the hearing, M.C.'s attorney argued that the records should be expunged immediately because the allegations were unfounded and because M.C. wanted "the Division out of his and his family's life." On the other hand, the Deputy Attorney General relied on N.J.A.C. 10:129-6.2(a) which states, the Division "shall expunge a record which consists of an unfounded report . . . three years after determining that the report was unfounded," unless certain exceptions apply, in which case the records are not to be expunged. After hearing oral argument, the court granted the Division's motion for reconsideration and ruled the Division should expunge its records in accordance with the procedures set forth in the New Jersey Administrative Code.
On appeal, M.C. does not contend the administrative regulations regarding expungement are arbitrary, unreasonable, or invalid for some other reason. Instead, he asserts the three-year waiting period is not mandated. We cannot agree. N.J.A.C. 10:129-6.2(a) specifically states that the Division "shall expunge a record . . . three years after determining that the report was unfounded." Moreover, the three-year waiting period is confirmed by N.J.A.C. 10:129-6.3(a)(2) and (3), which make specific reference to "the three years prior to eligibility for expunction." Thus, we conclude the matter was correctly decided by the Family Part judge.