On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Gloucester County, Docket No. FG-08-34-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 20, 2010
Before Judges Reisner and Sabatino.
In these consolidated appeals, defendants T.J. (mother) and B.T.C. (father) appeal from a June 2, 2009 order terminating their parental rights to their child, A.L.J. We affirm, substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Fineman in his comprehensive written opinion issued June 2, 2009.
The history of this case and the pertinent facts are exhaustively detailed in Judge Fineman's opinion.*fn1 We summarize them more briefly here. The mother had a prior history with the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division) concerning her first child, L.J. She tested positive for cocaine when her second child, A.L.J., was born on November 18, 2006, leading the Division to remove the child from her custody and place the child with her maternal grandmother. The Division provided services to help the mother with her severe psychological and drug problems, but she did not cooperate with the programs that were offered to her.
Although A.L.J. was initially placed with the grandmother, the child was moved to foster care in January 2007, after the grandmother was unwilling or unable to comply with the conditions of the placement. On this record, there is no meaningful basis to dispute that T.J. is incapable of acting as a parent to A.L.J. and has no parent-child bond with her. On the other hand, A.L.J. has bonded with her foster parents, who have expressed a commitment to adopting her. She would suffer severe and lasting emotional harm if she were separated from the foster parents.
The father, B.T.C., is incarcerated and unable to care for the child. He was violent and abusive to the mother during their brief relationship. The child has visited the father once in her life, and has no bond or other relationship with him. At the time of the guardianship trial, the father's sister, K.C., was not immediately available to take custody of the child. However, she expressed a desire to take custody of A.L.J. so that the child would not grow up thinking that her family did not love her. Without questioning K.C.'s concern for the child, the judge did not find her to be an entirely credible witness. He did not find placement with her to be in the child's best interests, particularly in light of A.L.J.'s strong bond to her foster family.
On this appeal, we must defer to the trial court's factual determinations "unless 'they are so wholly insupportable as to result in a denial of justice,'" and so long as they are "'supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence.'" In re Guardianship of J.T., 269 N.J. Super. 172, 188 (App. Div. 1993) (quoting Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974) (citations omitted)). We owe special deference to the factfinding of family part judges in light of their expertise. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (1998). However, "[a] trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. R.L., 388 N.J. Super. 81, 89 (App. Div. 2006), certif. denied, 190 N.J. 257 (2007) (quoting Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995)).
Guardianship actions implicate the parents' constitutional rights, as recognized under both the federal and New Jersey constitutions. Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 1212-13, 31 L.Ed. 2d 551, 558-59 (1972); N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. E.P., 196 N.J. 88, 102 (2008); see also Moriarty v. Bradt, 177 N.J. 84, 101 (2003), cert. denied, 540 U.S. 1177, 124 S.Ct. 1408, 158 L.Ed. 2d 78 (2004). However, "[t]hat fundamental parental right . . . is not without limitation. The State has a basic responsibility, as parens patriae to protect children from serious physical and psychological harm, even from their parents." E.P., supra, 196 N.J. at 102.
In striking a balance between the parents' constitutional rights and the children's fundamental needs, courts engage in the four-part guardianship test articulated in N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. ...