On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-197-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 19, 2011 - Decided Before Judges Carchman, Graves and Messano.
This is a termination of parental rights case. Defendant S.D.G. is the biological mother of K.C.N.G.P. and K.C.S.G.P., twin boys born on March 8, 2008 (the twins).*fn1 Defendant appeals from a judgment entered on May 18, 2010, terminating her parental rights and granting guardianship of the twins to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division). Based on our examination of the record and the applicable law, we conclude that the trial court's decision to terminate parental rights is supported by clear and convincing evidence. Consequently, we affirm.
At the outset, we reiterate the well-settled principle that parents enjoy a fundamental right to raise and maintain a relationship with their children that is protected by the United States and New Jersey Constitutions. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. E.P., 196 N.J. 88, 102 (2008) (citing Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651-52, 92 S. Ct. 1208, 1212, 31 L. Ed. 2d 551, 558-59 (1972); In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 346 (1999)). Moreover, "[t]he Legislature has declared that '[t]he preservation and strengthening of family life is a matter of public concern as being in the interests of the general welfare.'" K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 347 (second alteration in original) (quoting N.J.S.A. 30:4C-1(a)).
"Parental rights, though fundamentally important, are not absolute. The constitutional protection surrounding family rights is tempered by the State's parens patriae responsibility to protect the welfare of children." Ibid. (citing In re Guardianship of J.C., 129 N.J. 1, 10 (1992)). "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 (citing K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 347); see also N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 279 (2007) ("The State has a responsibility to protect the welfare of children and may terminate parental rights if the child is at risk of serious physical or emotional harm.") (citing Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 603, 99 S. Ct. 2493, 2504, 61 L. Ed. 2d 101, 119 (1979)). Furthermore, the Legislature has declared that "the health and safety of the child shall be the State's paramount concern when making a decision on whether or not it is in the child's best interest to preserve the family unit." N.J.S.A. 30:4C-1(a).
The New Jersey Supreme Court has "consistently imposed strict standards for the termination of parental rights." K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 347. "The balance between parental rights and the State's interest in the welfare of children is achieved through the best interests of the child standard." Ibid. Under that test, termination is not appropriate unless the Division satisfies each of the following four statutory factors by clear and convincing evidence:
(1) The child's safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship;
(2) The parent is unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing the child or is unable or unwilling to provide a safe and stable home for the child and the delay of permanent placement will add to the harm. Such harm may include evidence that separating the child from his resource family parents would cause serious and enduring emotional or psychological harm to the child;
(3) The division has made reasonable efforts to provide services to help the parent correct the circumstances which led to the child's placement outside the home and the court has considered alternatives to termination of parental rights; and
(4) Termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good. [N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a).]
"The statute requires that the State demonstrate harm to the child by the parent." K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 348. The four statutory factors "are not discrete and separate; they relate to and overlap with one another to provide a comprehensive standard that identifies a child's best interests." Ibid. "When the child's biological parents resist the termination of their parental rights, the court must decide whether the parents can raise their children without causing them further harm." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. F.H., 389 N.J. Super. 576, 609 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 192 N.J. 68 (2007) (citing J.C., supra, 129 N.J. at 10).
In the present matter, defendant was born on April 14, 1988. Unfortunately, she has a long history with the Division. On October 14, 2005, DYFS filed an order to show cause (OTSC) and complaint and was granted custody, care, and supervision of defendant's two oldest children, T.C.G. and T.Q.G., who were both born on October 7, 2005; and on May 30, 2007, the Division was granted custody, care, and supervision of defendant's third child, N.P., who was born on April 10, 2007.
While that litigation was pending,*fn2 Mark Singer, Ed.D., conducted psychological evaluations of defendant on December 14, 2005 and July 9, 2007, and he provided the Division with his findings and recommendations. In addition, Leslie Trott, Ed.D., evaluated defendant to assess her overall psychological functioning and her potential to parent. In a report dated March 4, 2008, Trott stated:
Results from the assessment support the opinion that [defendant] is intellectually limited, lacks insight, shows poor judgment and is not ready to parent. She completed testing, consistent with past evaluation findings, showing she functions within the range of Borderline Intelligence. Her skills are limited, reading at a 3rd grade equivalency. This teen desires reunification with her children but presents no competent plan as to how she can improve her situation. Her limited insight is apparent when she considers she will soon be 19 years old with five children . . . . She is struggling to maintain her own independence and self-sufficiency as an individual. [Defendant] is not ready to care for her children.
Four days later, on March 8, 2008, the twins were born. DYFS immediately filed an OTSC and complaint and was granted care, custody, and supervision of the children. Upon their release from the hospital, the twins were placed in a Division-approved foster home.
When the matter was reviewed in court on March 20, 2008, defendant voluntarily waived her right to a fact-finding hearing and stipulated that she did "not have appropriate housing or income to care for her newborn children." The same day, the court entered a permanency order that approved the Division's goal of reunification. The court also ordered defendant to: resume services provided by the Division including parenting classes, individual therapy, and life skills; enroll in the International Youth Organization "for GED and job training"; and contact Welfare Services "for income." Defendant was also ordered to obtain "appropriate employment and housing" and contact the New Jersey Division of Vocational Rehabilitation for assistance in obtaining employment.
On May 12, 2008, Carla Peso (Peso), defendant's DYFS case manager, composed a letter to the "Division of Welfare (Housing)" in an effort to help defendant obtain housing. The letter stated that defendant was "currently cooperatively participating in all services provided to her by the Division" but needed to "obtain stable housing and income" before she could be reunified with her children.
On June 16, 2008, Peso received a letter from Reunity House confirming that defendant had "attended a scheduled intake for the program on [May 8, 2008], and began her weekly visitation with her children in placement." The letter also indicated that defendant was "required to attend weekly parenting group while participating in the Reunity House Program."
In a subsequent letter dated September 9, 2008, Reunity House confirmed that defendant had attended nine of ten visitation sessions, arriving "early for four, on time for three, and late for two." The letter also stated that defendant's participation in the weekly parenting skills group "was marginally compliant."
On September 17, 2008, the Division provided defendant with another letter regarding housing. The letter was addressed to the "Food Stamp & General Assistance Program" and requested that the recipient "assist [defendant] in obtaining her own living space."
Following a review hearing on October 2, 2008, the court continued visitation and services at Reunity House, and on October 17, 2008, Peso prepared a third letter on defendant's behalf. That letter requested "assistance in aiding [defendant] with her current housing situation" and explained that she had to "obtain suitable housing and a stable income" in order to regain custody of her children.
Singer conducted his third psychological evaluation of defendant on November 26, 2008. During the interview, Singer asked defendant what was "in her children's best interests," and she replied: "[W]here they [are] at. I guess they're all right. I want to get on my feet. I'm getting tired of being with other people. I want my own place." Singer determined that defendant "lack[ed] the resources to care for any of her children at [that] point in time," and his report contained the following conclusions and recommendations:
Characterologically, and consistent with her behavior towards her children in the past, [defendant] has difficulty acknowledging and responding to the needs of others. She haslittle desire for meaningful social contact and, as such, likely engages in superficial and short-lived relationships. [Defendant], based upon the data, is likely to overly rely on the advice and guidance of others. This may explain her view that DYFS has not helped her to the ...