September 30, 2008
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF F.C.J.E., A MINOR.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FG-09-154-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 22, 2008
Before Judges Carchman, Sabatino and Simonelli.
The Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) brought this action, seeking the termination of the parental rights of defendant D.W. to her child, F.C.J.E., born April 11, 2005. Following a non-jury trial, Judge DeCastro rendered a written decision and entered judgment in favor of the Division.*fn1
In this appeal, D.W. raises the following contentions:
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN CONCLUDING THAT THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD WOULD BE SERVED BY TERMINATING D.W.'S PARENTAL RIGHTS.
A. THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE, BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE, THAT D.W. IS UNWILLING OR UNABLE TO ELIMINATE THE HARM FACING HER CHILD OR IS UNABLE OR UNWILLING TO PROVIDE A SAFE AND STABLE HOME FOR THE CHILD.
B. THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE, BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE, THAT THE DIVISION HAS MADE REASONABLE EFFORTS TO PROVIDE SERVICES TO HELP THIS PARENT CORRECT THE CIRCUMSTANCES WHICH LED TO HER CHILD'S PLACEMENT OUTSIDE THEIR HOME.
C. TERMINATION OF D.W.'S PARENTAL RIGHTS WILL DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD.
We reject these contentions and affirm.
D.W. has been known to the Division since 1986. However, it was not until 1995 that the Division substantiated abuse and neglect when D.W. gave birth to her second child, who tested positive for drugs at birth. D.W. also tested positive for opiates, cocaine and heroin. The Division removed the child from D.W.'s custody and placed him with his maternal grandmother.*fn2
D.W. again tested positive for cocaine, opiates and methadone when F.C.J.E was born in April 2005. D.W.'s drug screens in August, September and October 2005, also were positive for cocaine, opiates and methadone. She rejected the Division's recommendation for in-patient drug treatment, and for the placement of a homemaker in her home.
The Division removed F.C.J.E. from D.W.'s custody and placed the child into foster care after D.W. continued testing positive for drugs and failed to attend court-ordered in-patient drug treatment. Subsequent psychological evaluations revealed that any child in D.W.'s care would be exposed to neglect and harm.
D.W. continued testing positive for drugs as late as August 2007. A termination trial was held in September 2007. At the conclusion of the trial, Judge DeCastro rendered a written decision, which included extensive factual findings, and a thorough description of the applicability of those findings to the four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). Applying the clear and convincing proof standard, the judge concluded that the Division met all four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a).*fn3
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)).
Based upon our careful review of the record, we conclude there is clear and convincing evidence supporting Judge DeCastro's findings. We also conclude that the judge applied the correct legal standards to the facts she 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 her comprehensive and well-reasoned written decision.