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

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


June 5, 2008

NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
R.G., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF J.C.G., A MINOR.
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
H.L.F., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND C.B., DEFENDANT.
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF M.H.G. AND J.C.G., MINORS.

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Monmouth County, Docket No. FG-13-65-07.

Per curiam.

RECORD IMPOUNDED

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted May 21, 2008

Before Judges Cuff, Lihotz and Simonelli.

The Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) brought this action, seeking the termination of the parental rights of defendant, H.L.F., to her daughter, M.H.G.*fn1 , born July 25, 2002, and her son, J.C.G., born August 3, 2004; and the termination of the parental rights of defendant, R.G., to his son, J.C.G. Following a non-jury trial, Judge Guadagno rendered a written decision and entered judgment in favor of the Division.

In this appeal, H.L.F. raises the following arguments:

POINT I THE DIVISION FAILED TO ESTABLISH BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT IT IS NECESSARY TO TERMINATE H.L.F.'S PARENTAL RIGHTS IN ORDER TO PROTECT HIS CHILDREN'S BEST INTERESTS.

A. Standard of Review

B. The State Failed to Prove The Second Prong Because There is No Clear and Convincing Evidence that H.L.F. Failed to Eliminate the Harm

1. Court's Factual Errors

a. Court Overlooked Several Other Evaluations by Dr. Berman.

b. The Court Misstated Dr. Berman's Diagnosis.

c. Court Ignored Other Members of UMDNJ Treatment Team.

d. Court Misstated Intensity of UMDNJ Treatment.

e. Court Misstated Role of Dr. Berman.

2. More Than the "DYFS Game"

3. Progress at UMDNJ.

C. The State Failed To Prove The Third Prong Because It Failed To Make Reasonable Efforts to Provide H.L.F. With Appropriate Services.

1. Conference Call That Never Happened.

2. Approach to Treatment.

3. Visitation Only Two Hours Per Month.

D. Because the Children have a Motherly Bond with H.L.F. and a Strong Sibling Bond, the State Failed to Prove that Terminating H.L.F.'s Parental Rights Would Not Do More Harm than Good.

POINT II H.L.F. IS ENTITLED TO A NEW TRIAL BECAUSE THE COURT ERRED IN ALLOWING THE ADMISSION OF DR. WEISS' EVALUATION OF H.L.F.

R.G. raises the following arguments:

POINT I THE DIVISION FAILED TO PROVE THE FIRST PRONG OF THE STANDARD FOR TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS AS SET FORTH IN N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE AS TO R.G. BECAUSE THERE WAS NO SHOWING THAT R.G. WOULD CONTINUE TO POSE A RISK TO J.C.G.

POINT II THE DIVISION FAILED TO PROVE THE SECOND PRONG OF THE STANDARD FOR TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS AS SET FORTH IN N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE.

POINT III THE DIVISION FAILED TO PROVE THE THIRD PRONG OF THE STANDARD FOR TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS AS SET FORTH IN N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE.

At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Guadagno rendered a written decision, which included extensive factual findings, which thoroughly described the application of those findings to the four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a, and which applied the clear and convincing proof standard.

Our review of a trial judge's findings is a limited one. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. Z.P.R., 351 N.J. Super. 427, 433 (App. Div. 2002) (quoting Fagliarone v. Twp. of N. Bergen, 78 N.J. Super. 154, 155 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 40 N.J. 221 (1963)). We will not "'engage in an independent assessment of the evidence as if [we] were the court of first instance[,]'" ibid. (quoting State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999)), and will reverse only if we are convinced the trial judge's factual findings and legal conclusions "are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Ibid. (quoting Fagliarone, supra, 78 N.J. Super. at 155). We must defer to the trial judge's findings of fact if supported by clear and convincing evidence in the record. N.J. Div. of Youth & 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).

Given the special jurisdiction and expertise of a family court judge, we accord deference to that judge's fact-finding and conclusions which flow logically from those findings of fact. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (1998); Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 382 N.J. Super. 264, 271-72 (App. Div. 2006) (citing Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974)), rev'd o.g., 189 N.J. 261 (2007). We also afford deferential respect to a family judge's credibility determinations. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. H.B., 375 N.J. Super. 148, 172 (App. Div. 2005) (citing Rova Farms, supra, 65 N.J. at 483-84). However, a "trial judge's findings are not entitled to that same degree of deference if they are based upon a misunderstanding of the applicable legal principles." Z.P.R., supra, 351 N.J. Super. at 434 (citing Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 149 N.J. 366, 378 (1995)).

After careful review, we conclude that the record contains clear and convincing evidence to support Judge Guadagno's findings. We also conclude that the judge 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 no reason to disturb the judge's findings and affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in his comprehensive and well-reasoned written decision.

Affirmed.


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