On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket No. FG-14-23-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Graves and Espinosa.
Defendant W.F. appeals from a final judgment entered on January 22, 2008, terminating his parental rights to his daughter, S.F. (fictitiously, Samantha), who was born on February 28, 2004. We affirm.
Parents have a constitutionally protected "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). Nevertheless, "the right of parents to be free from governmental intrusion is not absolute. The State as parens patriae may act to protect minor children from serious physical and emotional harm. This may require a partial or complete severance of the parent-child relationship." New Jersey Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 599 (1986) (internal quotation omitted).
While our Legislature has recognized the importance of strengthening and preserving the integrity of family life, it has also recognized 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). Under this standard, a parent's right to a relationship with a child may be terminated when the State proves each of the following factors by clear and convincing evidence:
(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 are neither discrete nor separate.
"[T]hey relate to and overlap with one another to provide a comprehensive standard that identifies a child's best interests." K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 348. In the present matter, Samantha's mother, L.K., provided an identified surrender on October 18, 2007, so that Samantha could be adopted by D.C. and J.C., her maternal great aunt and uncle; the court terminated the parental rights of W.F., Samantha's father on January 22, 2008; and Samantha was adopted by D.C. and J.C. on May 29, 2008.
On August 31, 2006, when Samantha was two-and-one-half- years old, the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) filed an order to show cause and complaint for her protection, care, and custody. According to the Division's complaint, a Division worker executed an emergency removal on August 29, 2006, because Samantha's mother was being terminated from the Homeless Solutions Program, and she had no place to live, after testing positive for cocaine and morphine. In addition, the Division reported that defendant, W.F., Samantha's father, "is currently incarcerated at a federal penitentiary." The court placed Samantha in the care and custody of the Division on August 31, 2006, and it ordered the parents to provide the Division with the names and addresses of "any relatives who may be available as potential caregivers for the child." On October 5, 2006, the Division placed Samantha with D.C. and J.C., her maternal great aunt and uncle.
On October 26, 2006, L.K. and W.F. were both represented by counsel when they voluntarily agreed to waive their right to a fact-finding hearing and stipulated that they abused or neglected Samantha. L.K. acknowledged that her substance abuse problem placed Samantha at risk, and W.F. admitted that he was unable to care for Samantha due to his incarceration at the Allenwood Federal Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania. W.F. participated in the hearing by speakerphone, and he was represented by Robert Ziese.
When the matter returned to court for a permanency hearing on July 12, 2007, L.K. and W.F. were both represented, and W.F. participated by telephone from the federal prison in Pennsylvania. The court found that the Division's permanency plan for Samantha----termination of parental rights and adoption by her maternal great aunt and uncle----was appropriate, and the court approved the plan. By then, Samantha had been in placement with her relatives for more than nine months. On September 18, 2007, the Division filed a complaint for guardianship. According to the complaint, a paternity test ...