On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket No. FG-14-31-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Stern, Sabatino, and J. N. Harris.
Defendant R.C. appeals from a final judgment of guardianship that terminated his parental rights as to his daughter, A.C., who was born in January 2005, and was four years of age at the time of trial. On appeal, defendant argues that the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division) failed to establish the four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a), commonly known as the best interests of the child test, by the requisite clear and convincing standard of proof. Both the Division and the law guardian recommended termination of defendant's parental rights, and Judge Thomas J. Critchley agreed. After a thorough review of the expansive record, we too believe that all four prongs of the best interests test were sufficiently established by the Division, and therefore affirm.
Defendant is a father who has been incarcerated for a majority of his daughter's life. While he was incarcerated, DYFS had been working predominantly with the child's mother, maternal grandmother, and half-siblings for several years in an effort to aid the mother in parenting the children, with the ultimate goal being reunification. These efforts went unrealized, as the Division eventually needed to execute an emergency removal of the children from the mother's care when she left them unattended in a hot car, with the engine running, on a summer day while shopping. Neglect was substantiated, and DYFS began providing basic essential care to the children along with necessary services to the mother.
Because defendant was incarcerated at the time of the removal, and there were no other family alternatives for placement, the children, including A.C., were placed with their maternal grandmother, S.T., with whom they continue to reside today. The parental rights of A.C.'s mother were ultimately terminated when she entered an identified surrender of A.C. and her half-siblings to the maternal grandmother.
While this interaction between mother, grandmother, and the Division progressed, defendant had been incarcerated as an adult several times between June 1999 and March 2008. Most recently, in March 2006, defendant was sentenced to a five-year prison term for his guilty plea of second-degree eluding, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2(b), and was ultimately released in March 2008.
There is some evidence that prior to his incarceration, defendant did attempt to provide some financial support and baby supplies for the child, but was allegedly not entirely confident that A.C. was in fact his biological daughter. Therefore, in December 2006, a paternity test was administered to defendant while he was imprisoned, and he was determined to be A.C.'s biological father.
While incarcerated, and notably after learning that A.C. was in fact his biological daughter, defendant participated in services available to him, including substance abuse treatment, life skills, parenting classes, and anger management programs. These services were provided by the jail facility, not through the Division itself, as most of the Division's efforts were instead focused on the children and mother.
Defendant was subsequently transferred from prison to two different halfway houses: first to Talbot Hall in Kearny and then to Tully House in Newark at which he remained until his discharge from the prison system. It was at this time that defendant informed DYFS that he wished to regain custody of his daughter and begin to turn his life around. Around the same time, A.C.'s maternal grandmother indicated that she wished to pursue adoption of A.C. and both of A.C.'s half-siblings, as opposed to pursuing a Kinship Legal Guardianship (KLG) proceeding.
Beginning in September 2007 and while defendant was confined at the halfway house, the Division arranged for weekly visitation between defendant and A.C. During these visits, and for the several months of scheduled visits thereafter, DYFS caseworkers reported that A.C. was reluctant to open up to her father or to be responsive to his questions or efforts to engage her in play.
When defendant was released from Tully House, he told caseworkers that he was going to live at his father's home, but instead moved in with his girlfriend, H.G., in Newark, and obtained employment with a moving company. Judge John B. Dangler, who presided at the case management conferences, required R.C. to submit a parenting plan to the court, which defendant ultimately outlined and prepared with H.G. This plan was submitted to the court on May 2, 2008, and indicated, among other things, that daycare and health insurance arrangements were in place for A.C. should the couple be awarded custody of the child.
Defendant submitted to psychological and bonding evaluations at the request of the law guardian. These were conducted by three separate experts, the first of which took place on June 16, 2008, by licensed psychologist Dr. Sueli Petry, Ph.D. This particular bonding evaluation was conducted between A.C., her half-siblings, and the maternal grandmother, and not between A.C. and defendant. Dr. Petry concluded that the ...