June 18, 2008
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF A.B. AND N.H.B., MINORS.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-153-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted June 4, 2008
Before Judges Lihotz, Simonelli and King.
The Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) brought this action, seeking the termination of the parental rights of defendant R.B. to his children, A.B., born September 24, 2000, and N.H.B., born November 12, 2003. Following a non- jury trial, Judge Grant rendered a written decision and entered judgment in favor of the Division.*fn1
In this appeal, R.B. raises the following arguments:
POINT I THE DIVISION FAILED TO ESTABLISH BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT IT IS NECESSARY TO TERMINATE R.B.'S PARENTAL RIGHTS IN ORDER TO PROTECT HIS CHILDREN'S BEST INTERESTS.
A. The State Failed to Prove The First Prong Because the Children's Health and Safety is Not Endangered by R.B.
B. The State Failed to Prove The Second Prong Because R.B. Is Capable of Eliminating the Harm.
C. The State Failed to Prove The Third Prong Because It Failed to Make Any Efforts Whatsoever to Provide R.B. with Appropriate Services.
1. DYFS Ignored J.B.
2. A.B.'s and N.B.'s Rights Were Violated.
D. The State Failed To Prove That Terminating R.B.'s Parental Rights Would Not Do More Harm than Good.
1. Children Will Be Legal Orphans.
2. No Bonding Evaluation.
3. DYFS Not Statutorily Required to Seek Termination at this Time.
At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Grant rendered a written decision, which included extensive factual findings, that thoroughly described the application of those findings to the four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a, and that 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 on other grounds, 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 Grant'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.