On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FD-07-42-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 25, 2010
Before Judges Rodríguez and Reisner.
Plaintiff S.W. appeals from a final order of the Family Part dated April 17, 2009, denying her application for visitation with her sister's adopted child.*fn1 We affirm.
To summarize the essential facts, this appeal concerns an application for visitation by the child's great aunt (S.W.), despite the objections of the child's maternal grandmother (defendant R.J.R.), who has adopted the child. According to plaintiff's submissions, she and her husband obtained physical custody of the child soon after his birth on February 7, 2005. The Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) had taken the child from his mother (R.J.R.'s daughter) due to her substance abuse problems. At that time, R.J.R. was unable to obtain custody of her grandson because she was in the process of contesting a DYFS finding of abuse concerning one of her other daughters. Therefore, S.W. and her husband cared for the child from February 2005 until November 2006, when he was about a year and nine months old.
However, plaintiff and her husband never intended to obtain permanent custody of the child. Instead, they at all times supported R.J.R.'s efforts to obtain legal custody of her grandchild, a goal the child's mother also supported. When the child abuse finding against her was overturned, R.J.R. obtained custody of the child by court order dated November 6, 2006. The child's mother died in October 2007, and R.J.R. legally adopted the child on January 17, 2008. In March 2008, R.J.R. told plaintiff that she did not want her to visit with the child.
Plaintiff and her husband filed this suit on November 12, 2008, claiming that she and her husband were the child's psychological parents and that visitation was in his best interest.*fn2 Defendant opposed the application, asserting that she had allowed what she characterized as "transitional visitation" with plaintiff after she obtained custody of the child. Defendant contended that she had "pleaded with [plaintiff] to please respect my wish to heal from [my] daughter's death and to give me time to establish an uncomplicated schedule for [the child.]" However, she contended that plaintiff had behaved in an interfering and overbearing manner, including sending threatening letters, "besmirch[ing] my reputation in the church where I am very active in the youth ministry," and having "unauthorized contact with [the child] at his daycare program."
By order dated January 14, 2009, the trial judge denied the visitation application. However, the order noted that
[Plaintiff's] application for custody & visitation is denied. However, the [plaintiff] may have an expert advise the court that a bonding evaluation could be conducted on a (4) year old child, who resided with a foster parent for approximately (21) months after birth and is now and has been with the adoptive parent since that time.
The expert should explain how a child of that age could be psychologically harmed from such separation.
Plaintiff submitted an expert report, dated February 18, 2009, in which the expert opined that children can form attachments with preferred caregivers starting "between the ages of about 6 months and two or three years." She also opined "that a child can suffer considerable psychological harm if severed from a relationship with his primary caretakers after the age of two." The expert explained that the child had suffered two traumatic life events in the death of his mother and the loss of his early caretakers, and might be blaming ...