On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-95-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 9, 2008
Before Judges Collester and Graves.
Defendant N.G. appeals from a judgment of guardianship terminating his parental rights to his three sons: K.N.G., born on January 1, 1998; Q.M.H., born on June 23, 1999; and D.D.G., born on November 9, 2002. The mother of the children, C.H., signed an identified surrender of her parental rights, which will allow the present foster parents to adopt the children. On appeal, N.G. argues the judgment of guardianship should be reversed because the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division) "failed to clearly and convincingly prove the four prongs of the best interests test." Because the trial court's decision is adequately supported by substantial credible evidence in the record, we affirm.
While recognizing the fundamental nature of parental rights and the need to preserve and strengthen family life, our Legislature has declared that "the health and safety of the child shall be the State's paramount concern when making a decision on whether or not it is in the child's best interest to preserve the family unit." N.J.S.A. 30:4C-1(a). "The balance between parental rights and the State's interest in the welfare of children is achieved through the best interests of the child standard." In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 347 (1999). The best interests standard, initially formulated by the Court in N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 604-11 (1986), and codified in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a), requires the State to satisfy the following four-part best- interests-of-the-child test by clear and convincing evidence before parental rights may be terminated:
(1) The child's safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship;
(2) The parent is unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing the child or is unable or unwilling to provide a safe and stable home for the child and the delay of permanent placement will add to the harm. Such harm may include evidence that separating the child from his resource family parents would cause serious and enduring emotional or psychological harm to the child;
(3) The division has made reasonable efforts to provide services to help the parent correct the circumstances which led to the child's placement outside the home and the court has considered alternatives to termination of parental rights; and
(4) Termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good.
These four requirements, which are extremely fact sensitive, "relate to and overlap with one another to provide a comprehensive standard." K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 348.
In this case, the facts leading up to the children's initial placement in foster care are not disputed. The Division's first contact with N.G. and his family was on November 15, 2003, when the police reported a fire at the apartment where N.G. lived with his three children and their mother. Although the fire caused only minor damage and no one was harmed, the city fire marshal was concerned for the safety of the children because "there were about 50 cigarette burn marks on the floor" of the apartment and there were also cigarette burn marks on the television. Upon investigation, a DYFS caseworker observed "there were no beds for the kids," and the apartment was infested with roaches. The caseworker identified "child welfare concerns," and a case was opened so that the Division could provide assistance to the family.
A few days later, on November 22, 2003, the Division received another referral from the police. This time the police stated that N.G. had "asked for placement of the children." According to the referral, N.G. told the police that the oldest child, K.N.G. (age five), "is too much, he thinks he's grown. I can't take him anymore." In addition, N.G. explained to the police that the apartment was in disarray because he started "overturning the furniture" after he became frustrated. Based on N.G.'s behavior, the Division referred him for a psychological evaluation and a substance abuse assessment.
However, because N.G. agreed to voluntarily leave the apartment and the mother told the caseworker the children would not be left alone with their father, the children continued to reside with their mother.
On March 1, 2004, the Division received a referral from the police stating the children were home alone, and the mother's whereabouts were unknown. According to the referral, K.N.G. was "trying to cook pizza by putting the box in the oven." DYFS removed the children from their home on an emergency basis, and the next day the court placed the children in the custody, care, and supervision of the Division.
On March 2, 2004, the court ordered the mother to attend a parenting skills class, and it required the father to obey an outstanding domestic violence order that prohibited him from having any contact with the mother. The court also required the Division to schedule weekly visitation. The children were placed in the care of ...