October 24, 2011
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
J.P.C., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF A.S.C., MINOR.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FG-15-29-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 4, 2011
Before Judges Carchman and Fisher.
Because the record amply supports the trial judge's findings that defendant, the biological father of A.S.C.,*fn1 endangered his daughter and abandoned his responsibilities as a parent due to his heroin addiction and lengthy incarcerations, we affirm the judgment terminating defendant's parental rights.
Parents have a constitutionally protected right to the care, custody and control of their children. Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753, 102 S. Ct. 1388, 1394-95, 71 L. Ed. 2d 599, 606 (1982); In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 346 (1999). "The rights to conceive and to raise one's children have been deemed 'essential,' 'basic civil rights . . .,' 'far more precious . . . than property rights.'" Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S. Ct. 1208, 1212, 31 L. Ed. 2d 551, 558 (1972) (internal citations omitted). "The preservation and strengthening of family life is a matter of public concern as being in the interests of the general welfare." N.J.S.A. 30:4C-1(a); see also K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 347.
The constitutional right to the parental relationship, however, is not absolute. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 599 (1986). At times, the parent's interest must yield to the State's obligation to protect children from harm. In re Guardianship of J.C., 129 N.J. 1, 10 (1992). As a result, the Legislature created a test for determining whether a parent's rights must be terminated in the child's best interests. N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) requires that the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) prove by clear and convincing evidence the following four prongs:
(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 . . .;
(3) The [D]ivision 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.
See also A.W., supra, 103 N.J. at 604-11. The statute's four prongs are not "discrete and separate; they overlap with one another to provide a comprehensive standard that identifies a child's best interests." K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 348. Once judgment is entered, our standard of review is limited. In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002). Because a judge's findings "are considered binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence," Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974), we only disturb factual findings when they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. G.L., 191 N.J. 596, 605 (2007); Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 412 (1998); N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. C.S., 367 N.J. Super. 76, 112 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 180 N.J. 456 (2004).
In appealing, defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding in favor of the Division, by clear and convincing evidence, on any of the four prongs. We find no merit in his arguments. The first prong of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) calls for an exploration of the "endangerment of the child's health and development resulting from the parental relationship." K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 348. The focus is not necessarily on a "single or isolated" event, but rather on "the effect of harms arising from the parent-child relationship over time." Ibid.
In this case, the record fully supports the finding that defendant has been burdened by long-standing drug problems. In his June 30, 2010 written decision, Judge James M. Blaney found that defendant "was actively using heroin both "before and for some time after" the child's birth:
At times, [defendant] was using twenty bags of heroin a day. His use resulted in his not having any contact with his daughter. It also resulted in his arrest and guilty plea to possession of CDS. He was placed in jail in April 2008 and has been in jail and halfway houses since then. Basically, the defendant has abandoned his responsibilities as a father . . . . Clearly, his criminal and addictive behavior and failure to be present for his daughter's first three years of her life put [her] in serious danger both physically and emotionally.
In examining the evidence relevant to the second prong, the judge recognized that the experts were in agreement that defendant "is not capable of being a caregiver" for the child. And the judge provided ample reasons for his determination that the third and fourth prongs were also met. In short, we affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in the cogent and thoughtful written opinion of Judge Blaney.