August 17, 2011
MARK BAKER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
ILENE REILLY, DEFENDANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FD-15-1074-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued August 10, 2011
Before Judges J. N. Harris and Fasciale.
Plaintiff Mark Baker appeals from a July 12, 2010 order awarding Derek and Laura Gorski temporary legal and residential custody of his son, C.B., following the death of the child's mother.*fn1 Baker contends that the motion judge deprived him of his fundamental right to care for his son and ignored the clear presumption in favor of the surviving biological parent in determining custody. We reverse and remand for a new hearing.
Baker, a soldier in the United States Army, became romantically involved with Ilene Reilly and their relationship resulted in the birth of C.B., on April 15, 2005. After their relationship ended in 2008, they entered into a consent support order on July 13, 2008. The order provided for child support and custody. It stated in pertinent part: sole custody of [C.B.] . . . is vested with Reilly. If for any reason Ms. Reilly cannot care for [C.B.,] custody will be vested with Derek . . . Gorski and Laura Gorski, the child's godparents. Custody will not go to Mark Baker[,] father.
Baker to have supervised parenting time . . . . Both parties to cooperate fully with any recommendations of DYFS.
This order reflected an earlier agreement, which was signed by Baker and notarized on June 30, 2008. The earlier agreement provided for "full custody" of C.B. to Reilly and "should [she] become unable to care for him" he should "then go to his godparents." Baker, at all times, paid child support and voluntarily paid approximately $1600 per month in additional support.
During this same time period, Reilly alleged that Baker sexually abused C.B. Baker explained to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) that he was unaware of the charges and also denied the substance of the charges. He informed DYFS that the custody agreements were only temporary and that he was required, pursuant to military regulations, to make a custody arrangement for his son before he began his tour of duty in Iraq.
Baker returned from Iraq in February 2009 and began seeing his son and Reilly regularly. Reilly then passed away in May 2010. Derek Gorski, C.B.'s godfather, was given custody of the child pursuant to the agreement. Thereafter, Baker, Baker's father, Andrew, and Gorski all filed separate complaints for custody of the child.
At the hearing, the DYFS caseworker concluded that the complaints against Baker were unfounded and unsubstantiated. She stated "[DYFS] doesn't have a recommendation where the child should go[,]" yet DYFS planned therapy with C.B., a psychological evaluation for Baker, and gradual reunification because, despite the unfounded allegations, the child still believed that Baker had abused him.
The judge, however, was concerned about the letter and consent order Baker entered into, waiving his custody rights to his son. Baker explained that the letter was poorly written and merely reflected a temporary custody arrangement while he was deployed in Iraq, in accordance with military regulations. The judge, however, did not believe that the agreement was intended to be only temporary. The judge found the letter to be evidence of "potential unfitness," entered an order granting temporary custody to Gorski, and allowed Baker to reapply for custody once he completes a psychological evaluation. The order granted Baker supervised visitation rights and unsupervised visitation rights to the paternal grandparents.
On appeal Baker argues that he was (1) improperly deprived of his right to custody of his son, and (2) the judge ignored the clear presumption in favor of the surviving biological parent in determining custody.
We will uphold the factual findings supporting the trial court's decision if they are supported by "adequate, substantial and credible evidence." In re Guardianship of J.T., 269 N.J. Super. 172, 188 (App. Div. 1993) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). "Additionally, as a general rule, we must grant deference to the trial court's credibility determinations." Div. of Youth & Fam. Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 279 (2007); see also Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-13 (1998). However, "'where the focus of the dispute is . . . alleged error in the trial judge's evaluation of the underlying facts and the implications to be drawn therefrom,' the traditional scope of review is expanded." In re J.T., supra, 269 N.J. Super. at 188-89 (quoting Snyder Realty, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 233 N.J. Super. 65, 69 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 117 N.J. 165 (1989)). We must ask ourselves whether the trial court's findings "'went so wide of the mark that a mistake must have been made.'" M.M., supra, 189 N.J. at 279 (quoting Snyder, supra, 233 N.J. Super. at 69); accord Pioneer Nat'l Title Ins. Co. v. Lucas, 155 N.J. Super. 332, 338 (App. Div.), aff'd, 78 N.J. 320 (1978).
The touchstone for all custody determinations has always been "the best interest[s] of the child." Kinsella v. Kinsella, 150 N.J. 276, 317, (1997). "Custody issues [between two fit parents] are resolved using a best interests analysis that gives weight to the factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c)." Hand v. Hand, 391 N.J. Super. 102, 105 (App. Div. 2007). The statute permits a judge to make any custody award that is in the best interests of the child after considering a variety of factors such as, "the parents' ability to agree, communicate and cooperate," "the safety of the child and the safety of either parent from physical abuse by the other parent," and "the fitness of the parent." N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c). These factors must be analyzed because "[i]n any proceeding involving the custody of a minor child, the rights of both parties [are] equal[.]"
However, "when the dispute is between a fit parent and a third party, only the fit parent is presumed to be entitled to custody." Watkins v. Nelson, 163 N.J. 235, 253 (2000). We recognize that "a legal parent has a fundamental right to the care, custody and nurturance of his or her child." V.C. v. M.J.B., 163 N.J. 200, 218, cert. denied, 531 U.S. 926, 121 S. Ct. 302, 148 L. Ed. 2d 243 (2000). It is the relationship between the person seeking custody and the child, therefore, that determines the standard to be used in awarding custody. Faucett v. Vasquez, 411 N.J. Super. 108, 122 (App. Div. 2009), certif. denied, dismissed as moot, 203 N.J. 435 (2010). See also Watkins, supra, 163 N.J. at 253. Thus, in the context of a fit parent and a third party, "the child's best interests become a factor only after the parental termination standard [or exceptional circumstances] has been met, rather than the determinative standard itself." Ibid.
Here, sufficient, credible evidence failed to establish that Baker was an unfit parent or that "exceptional circumstances" existed. The DYFS investigation concluded that the allegations against Baker were unfounded and unsubstantiated. Further, Baker's presumption of fitness is not defeated by his supposed waiver of custody while he was stationed in Iraq. He explained that he was required to do so under military guidelines. Therefore, a best interests analysis was not required because Baker held a presumption of custody of his son as the surviving biological parent under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. See Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S. Ct. 1208, 1212-13, 31 L. Ed. 2d 551, 558-559 (1972); V.C., supra, 163 N.J. at 218. Thus, we remand the matter for a new hearing*fn2 and direct that the judge apply the presumption in favor of the natural father.
Reversed and remanded. We do not retain jurisdiction.