On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FN-12-231-08. Yvonne Smith Segars, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Jean M. Hartmann, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 5, 2010
Before Judges Carchman and Messano.
Defendant G.S. appeals from an order of the Family Part dismissing G.S. as a party-defendant and removing her name from the birth certificate of A.F., the child of her paramour, S.F. Defendant asserts that plaintiff Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division) was estopped or precluded by the doctrine of laches from seeking such relief, and the judge erred by granting DYFS' application for such relief. We conclude that under the unique facts presented here, the judge did not err, and we affirm.
These are the facts adduced from the record.
Defendant is the female paramour of S.F., who gave birth to A.F. in New Brunswick on January 15, 2008. Defendant was listed by S.F. on the birth certificate as "Parent," although she did not have any direct relationship, biologically or otherwise, to the pregnancy. A.F.'s biological father is unknown. The Division received a referral from the hospital staff concerning A.F. after S.F. stated that she did not know she was pregnant until the last month of her pregnancy and admitted to significant alcohol abuse including consuming a pint of vodka per day during her pregnancy. The staff was also concerned about S.F.'s mental health after she stated she had previously given birth by C-section but had no scar.
The Division filed a complaint in January 2008, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21 and N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12, naming both S.F. and defendant as parties-defendants. According to the Division, defendant was included as a defendant to this protective services litigation because it understood that S.F.'s parenting plan involved defendant as a caretaker once A.F. was released from the hospital.
The judge questioned defendant's presence in the case, as the relationship between defendant and S.F. was unclear. S.F. and defendant had never entered into a civil union, although S.F. later represented to the judge that they intended to obtain one; however, during the pendency of this action, no civil union was consummated. Despite the judge's concern, defendant remained a named defendant in the litigation. Custody of A.F. was placed with DYFS. On the return day of the order to show cause, the judge again raised the issue of defendant's status in the action, but at that time S.F. again represented that the parties were in the process of obtaining a civil union.
At a fact-finding hearing, the judge concluded that S.F.'s conduct had placed the child in substantial risk of harm and custody was continued with DYFS. Neither defendant nor S.F. appeared at the hearing.
The issue was reopened on November 17, 2008 at a compliance review. The parties again discussed defendant's status in this action, and DYFS recognized that the issue could pose a problem later if the Division sought to terminate parental rights. This comment proved prescient. Nevertheless, the judge continued the action with both defendant and S.F. as parties.
Following a hearing in January, the permanency plan was reunification. On April 20, 2009, the Division sought a permanency hearing, noting that there was a goal change for A.F.'s permanent custodial situation. The new goal called for termination of S.F.'s parental rights and adoption by the maternal grandparents, who had maintained physical custody throughout the litigation. After numerous continuances, and once it became apparent that the goal no longer included S.F. as custodian, the Division also moved to dismiss defendant as a party to the action and correct the birth certificate.
The Division's motion was granted. The judge emphasized that G.S. was not a biological parent of A.F., because she was not a participant in the creation of the pregnancy and no rights arose out of S.F.'s ...