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New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. J.M. and C.H

April 1, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, FG-14-49-09.

Per curiam.



Submitted January 12, 2011 - Decided

Before Judges Fuentes, Gilroy and Nugent.

In this consolidated appeal, defendants C.H. (mother) and J.M. (father) challenge the termination of their parental rights to their five-year-old son, J.J.S.M. We affirm.

J.M. resides in South Carolina with his mother. He has a chronic substance abuse problem, has been unable to find and maintain steady employment, and has been incarcerated a number of times. He has not seen his son since J.J.S.M. was six months old. C.H. was J.J.S.M.'s primary caretaker until he was removed from her custody in October 2007. C.H. also has a significant substance abuse history and has experienced periods of unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration. J.J.S.M. has resided in his current foster home since March 2009, and his foster parents have expressed an interest in adopting him.

Judge Wright tried these two cases over a period of several days in which the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division) presented evidence attesting to the circumstances that led to its intervention and eventual removal of J.J.S.M. DYFS presented the testimony of two caseworkers and nearly 200 documents. The Division also presented the expert testimony of Dr. Rachel Jewelewicz-Nelson, a psychologist who evaluated both C.H and J.M. during the summer of 2009 and opined as to defendants' ability to safely and adequately parent their young son.

On appeal, both defendants contend that the court erred in terminating their parental rights because the Division failed to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, the statutory factors outlined in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). Defendants argue that without such evidence, the court did not have the authority to terminate their constitutionally protected right to raise their child. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. I.S., 202 N.J. 145, 166 (2010). C.H. also argues that reversal is warranted because improper and unauthenticated evidence was presented to the trial court.

We reject these arguments and affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Wright in his oral opinion delivered from the bench on November 20, 2009. We incorporate by reference the factual findings reached by Judge Wright from the evidence presented at trial and add only the following brief comments.

In his oral opinion that covered over sixty transcribed pages, Judge Wright painstakingly reviewed the evidence presented by the parties and made specific factual findings that are well supported by the record. Brunson v. Affinity Fed. Credit Union, 199 N.J. 381, 397 (2009). The court's legal analysis, predicated on these findings, supports the judgments of guardianship terminating defendants' parental rights and tracks the statutory requirements of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337 (1999); In re Guardianship of D.M.H., 161 N.J. 365 (1999).

Both defendants have failed to live safe and competent lives, to the detriment of their young son. C.H.'s chronic and ongoing substance abuse problem is, in and of itself, a threat to J.J.S.M.'s safety and an impediment to his development. The strength and depth of this addiction have prevented C.H. from appreciating the risk involved in leaving J.J.S.M. home alone. Even while this case was pending before the trial court, her addictions made her unable to maintain stable housing and employment and caused her to engage in criminal behavior, resulting in periods of incarceration. As Judge Wright correctly noted, C.H.'s "downward spiral" between October 2007 and the time of trial weighed against the likelihood that her behavior would change sufficiently to keep J.J.S.M. safe from harm and provide him with a stable home.

J.M.'s absence for the majority of J.J.S.M.'s life constituted a clear "hindrance to the child's development." He has failed to properly address his own chronic substance abuse problem by declining treatment. This affected his ability to maintain steady employment and has resulted in repeated terms of incarceration, all of which posed clear threats to J.J.S.M.'s safety and well-being. As noted by Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson, J.M. does not understand J.J.S.M.'s needs or the effect the "continuation of his past behavior would have on his son."

C.H.'s argument concerning the authentication of the records referred to by the Division caseworkers at trial lacks sufficient merit to warrant discussion ...

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