On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-121-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted August 25, 2009
Before Judges Sabatino and Chambers.
Defendant, K.C., the biological father of E.Z.C., appeals the final judgment of guardianship entered by the Family Part terminating his parental rights. Defendant argues that the Division of Youth and Family Services ("the Division") failed to prove at trial the four statutory criteria to justify termination under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). Defendant further argues that he was unduly prejudiced in the guardianship matter because of a delay in the appointment of counsel for him in the Division's related action for care and custody of E.Z.C. We affirm.
The following relevant chronology emerges from the record. The child who is the subject of this appeal, E.Z.C., was born on January 28, 2007. Her biological parents are defendant, who was age seventeen at the time of her birth, and her mother, V.Q.R., who was then age fourteen. Prior to giving birth to E.Z.C., V.Q.R. herself was under the guardianship of the Division, which had been involved with her care for over five years. V.Q.R. had a history of running away from her foster parents, G.H. and C.H., with whom she lived intermittently since she was eight years old.
At the time of E.Z.C.'s birth, defendant had been recently released from a juvenile detention center and was living with his mother in Camden. He lacked employment and appropriate housing for the child. Although the precise details of defendant's juvenile and criminal history and his periods of confinement are not entirely clear from the record, it appears that he was indicted for a drug offense at some point in 2007 after he reached the age of majority. Defendant was then convicted in April 2008 in connection with a June 2007 aggravated assault and was sentenced to 364 days in the county jail. The trial judge found it noteworthy that defendant had incurred two adult offenses within seven months after turning eighteen. Defendant was incarcerated in the latter part of 2007 through several months in 2008.*fn1
Subsequent to the birth of E.Z.C., defendant fathered two other children with two mothers other than V.Q.R. One child was born in December 2007, and the other was born in May 2008. The trial judge found that defendant does not reside with or provide support to either of those children. Those additional children are not the subject of the present appeal. The record does not reflect V.Q.R. giving birth to any other children.
When E.Z.C. was born, the Division placed her in the household of G.H. and C.H., the foster residence of V.Q.R. Initially, G.H. and C.H. allowed defendant to have daily supervised visits with his daughter in their home from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Those arrangements were not honored by defendant, who began staying in the foster house until "all hours of the night," as late as 4:30 a.m.
The tensions created by defendant's refusal to abide by the visitation schedule escalated to a physical altercation between V.Q.R. and C.H. on February 22, 2007. V.Q.R. also unsuccessfully attempted, with the assistance of defendant, to remove the child from the home. Both V.Q.R. and C.H. reported the situation to the Division. The following day, V.Q.R. ran away without the child.
V.Q.R.'s whereabouts have been frequently unknown since that time, with the exception of a few pre-trial court appearances and some sporadic contacts with Division case workers. V.Q.R. defaulted at the time of trial in July 2008. The parties' briefs represent that she has not yet been located.
V.Q.R. has not appealed the termination of her own parental rights.
Shortly after V.Q.R.'s departure, the Division removed E.Z.C. from the home of G.H. and C.H., upon receiving information that their nineteen-year-old son, who was then residing with them, had pending sexual assault charges. On February 28, 2007, the Division placed E.Z.C. in a new foster home with V.M. and J.M. E.Z.C. has resided continuously with V.M. and J.M. since that time. V.M. and J.M. wish to adopt her, as confirmed by correspondence from them in the record.
Meanwhile, the Division pursued litigation in the Family Part to protect E.Z.C.'s welfare. Three days after she was born, the Division filed a complaint under the "FN" docket in the Family Part, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12, on January 31, 2007, alleging that E.Z.C. was in need of protection. That same day, the court awarded the Division care, custody and supervision of E.Z.C.
On March 1, 2007, the court reconvened on the return date of the initial order to show cause in the FN matter. Both defendant and V.Q.R. appeared in court that day, each without counsel. They were granted visitation with the child, supervised by the Division. The court set down a new hearing date of April 13, 2007, and informed both parents of that date. Having been advised of the recent altercation between V.Q.R. ...