On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FG-09-108-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 26, 2011
Before Judges Axelrad, Lihotz, and J. N. Harris.
These two appeals -- emanating from the same Title 30 litigation that terminated the parental rights of E.C. -- are calendared back to back and consolidated for purposes of this opinion. The first-filed appeal (A-6335-08T4) entails J.C.'s and M.C.'s challenge to an order of the Family Part that refused to place their grandchildren, N.C. and T.C., in their custody. The second appeal (A-0043-09T4) involves E.C.'s contestation of the same court's termination of his parental rights vis-A-vis N.C. and T.C.
In January 2007, in an act of tragic domestic violence, E.C. pummeled to death his wife and mother of his children, N.C. and T.C. He was subsequently convicted of first-degree aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a)(1), and sentenced to eighteen years imprisonment, subject to the No Early Release Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2.*fn1 In the ensuing protective services proceeding, E.C. offered his parents (the children's grandparents), J.C. and M.C., as a placement resource for his two young sons. However, the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) placed the children in the care of their current foster parents, the in-laws of the children's paternal uncle, where they have resided since their mother's death and father's arrest. The Division's permanency plan is to facilitate the foster parents' adoption of the children.
Based upon our review of the record we affirm the Family Part's determinations in both appeals.
N.C. and T.C. were born on July 31, 2002, and September 14, 2004, respectively. E.C. is the natural father of both boys. On January 20, 2007, the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) contacted the Division to report that E.C. had beaten his wife, T.C.C., the natural mother of N.C. and T.C., earlier that morning and that she was currently being kept alive on life support apparatus at the Jersey City Medical Center.*fn2 The police also reported that E.C. had been arrested and charged with domestic violence and aggravated assault. The children were at their grandparents' home when the Division received the call, having been placed there by the JCPD after they returned home from a sleep-over.
The next day, January 21, 2007, a Division case worker visited the residence of J.C. and M.C. to gather information. The children's paternal uncle, L.C. (E.C.'s brother), and his fianceee, M.L., were also present. The grandparents stated that they normally cared for the children approximately three days each week and had, in fact, cared for the children during the night prior to their daughter-in-law's homicide.
The case worker also spoke with N.C., who recalled that his "mom was bleeding by her nose and her lip." N.C. told the case worker that his father is nice to the family, but "angry with [his] mommy." When asked if his parents fought often, N.C. stated, "[t]hey fight and my daddy hit mommy in the back."
The case worker also spoke with members of the family about potential emergency caregivers for the children at that time.
J.C. and M.C. expressed an interest in so serving, but also identified possible others. After visiting the homes of the suggested caregivers, the case worker ruled out J.C. and M.C. based upon the living conditions at their home, including its "exposed pipes that constitute safety and fire issues." Ultimately, M.L.'s parents, B.L. and P.L., were determined to be an appropriate emergency placement.
On January 23, 2007, the Division filed its complaint for custody, care, and supervision seeking emergency custody of N.C. and T.C. because their father was incarcerated and their mother was deceased. An order was entered on that date placing the children in the "immediate custody, care and supervision of the Division."
On August 2, 2007, following a compliance review hearing, the Family Part denied E.C.'s request for visitation with his sons unless recommended by the children's therapist. On November 15, 2007, E.C.'s request to have his parents reevaluated as a relative resource was denied.
In a rule-out letter dated June 13, 2007, the Division formally notified the grandparents that because the grandfather had been substantiated for "child physical abuse" in 1994, and due to their residence's "limited living space," they could not be considered as caregivers at that time.*fn3 T.C.'s godmother; paternal uncle, L.C.; and maternal grandmother in California were also ruled out as being unable or unwilling to care for the children or for inadequate living spaces.
Consistent with the letter's directive, J.C.'s and M.C.'s attorney timely requested a review by the Division. However, six months later the grandparents had still heard nothing from the Division, prompting their attorney to send a follow-up letter on January 3, 2008, requesting a hearing to reconsider the rule-out decision.
In early January 2008, the Family Part approved the Division's permanency plan of termination of parental rights followed by adoption. The Division filed the guardianship complaint on March 28, 2008.
In the meantime, the grandparents were permitted to visit with N.C. and T.C. on weekends until June 2008, when the grandmother and foster mother had an argument. In September 2008, the foster parents requested that future visitations with the grandparents take place at the Division's offices. In early November 2008, J.C. and M.C. filed a formal motion for custody with the Family Part.
Prior to the court's final decision on June 19, 2009, the earlier reference to substantiated child abuse by J.C. was withdrawn by the Division in a letter dated January 7, 2009. One month later, the Division reconsidered the grandparents as a relative resource, but determined that "it would be in the best interest of the child(ren) to remain in the current placement . . . because ...