On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division - Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FG-09-110-08D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Axelrad, Fisher and Sapp-Peterson.
J.L. appeals from an August 7, 2009 final judgment of the Family Part terminating his parental rights to his then four-year-old son, J.D.L., and awarding guardianship of the child to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) following a contested trial.*fn1 On appeal, J.L. contends DYFS failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence the requisite statutory prongs to establish that the best interests of his son required severance of his parental ties. We note that the Law Guardian has consistently supported termination of J.L.'s parental rights.
After considering the record and briefs in light of the applicable law, we are satisfied the trial judge's findings and conclusions are firmly supported by substantial, credible evidence in the record as a whole. See, e.g., N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.R.G., 361 N.J. Super. 46, 78 (App. Div. 2003), aff'd in part and modified in part, 179 N.J. 264 (2004). We affirm substantially for the reasons set forth by Judge Lourdes Santiago in her comprehensive written decision appended to the judgment of guardianship. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A). We add the following comments.
We begin by noting some basic principles. The scope of our review of a trial court's decision to terminate parental rights is limited. In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002). We also have a limited scope of review of the Family Part's factual findings. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 279 (2007). In reviewing the factual findings and conclusions of a trial court, "we are obliged to accord deference to the trial court's credibility determinations and its 'feel of the case' based upon the opportunity of the judge to see and hear the witnesses." A.R.G., supra, 361 N.J. Super. at 78 (citing Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998); Pascale v. Pascale, 113 N.J. 20, 33 (1988)). "When the credibility of witnesses is an important factor, the trial court's conclusions must be given great weight and must be accepted by the appellate court unless clearly lacking in reasonable support." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. F.M., 375 N.J. Super. 235, 259 (App. Div. 2005) (citing In re Guardianship of D.M.H., 161 N.J. 365, 382 (1999)). We rely upon the trial court's acceptance of the credibility of the expert testimony and the court's fact-findings based thereon, as it is in a better position to evaluate the witness' credibility, qualifications, and the weight to be accorded to the expert's testimony. Ibid.; see also In re Guardianship of J.C., 129 N.J. 1, 22 (1992).
We are not to disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless they are "so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974) (citation omitted). Additionally, "[b]ecause of the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, appellate courts should accord deference to family court factfinding" and the conclusions which flow logically therefrom. Cesare, supra, 154 N.J. at 413; M.M., supra, 189 N.J. at 279. Reversal is required only in those circumstances in which the trial court's findings were "so wide of the mark that a mistake must have been made." M.M., supra, 189 N.J. at 279 (citations omitted). Applying this standard, we discern ample evidence in the record supporting the judge's conclusion that the best interests of the child require termination of J.L.'s parental rights.
The applicable principles are well settled. "Parents have a constitutionally-protected, fundamental liberty interest in raising their biological children . . . ." J.C., supra, 129 N.J. at 9 (citing Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 1394, 71 L.Ed. 2d 599, 606 (1982)). The federal and state constitutions protect the inviolability of the family unit. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 599 (1986) (citing Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 1212, 31 L.Ed. 2d 551, 558 (1972)). However, government "is not without constitutional control over parental discretion in dealing with children when their physical or mental health is jeopardized." Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 603, 99 S.Ct. 2493, 2504, 61 L.Ed. 2d 101, 119 (1979) (citing Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 230, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 1540, 32 L.Ed. 2d 15, 33 (1972)). The State, as parens patriae, may sever the parent-child relationship to protect the child from serious physical and emotional injury. A.W., supra, 103 N.J. at 599.
When the child's biological parent resists termination of parental rights, it is the court's function to decide whether the parent can raise the child without causing harm. J.C., supra, 129 N.J. at 10. The cornerstone of our inquiry is not whether the parent is fit, but whether the parent can become fit to assume the parental role within time to meet the child's needs. Ibid. "The analysis . . . entails strict standards to protect the statutory and constitutional rights of the natural parents." Ibid. The burden rests on the State "to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence" that the natural parent has placed the child at serious risk, has not cured the problem, and that the likelihood of future harm to the child is sufficiently great as to require severance of the parental ties. J.C., supra, 129 N.J. at 10.
The State Constitution and N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15 and 15.1a require satisfaction of the "best interests of the child" test by clear and convincing evidence before termination of parental rights can occur. See A.W., supra, 103 N.J. at 612; In re Guardianship of Jordan, 336 N.J. Super. 270, 274 (App. Div. 2001). Specifically, the four-prong test set forth in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a requires DFYS to prove:
(1) The child's safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by ...