On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FN-12-212-09.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lihotz, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 28, 2011
Before Judges Lihotz, Waugh and St. John.
The opinion of the court was delivered by LIHOTZ, J.A.D.
Defendant, J.C., the biological mother of minor, E.C., maintains she was denied due process when the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) retained custody, care and supervision of E.C., pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12, without a full dispositional hearing to discern whether E.C. could safely return home. The Division defends the need for the protective services litigation and argues neither a fact-finding nor a dispositional hearing was required. Further, the Division, supported by the Law Guardian, suggests J.C.'s appeal is moot because she consented to E.C.'s adoption by relatives after executing an "identified surrender."*fn1
We agree with the Division and the Law Guardian that the issues raised on appeal are now moot. "'An issue is moot when the decision sought in a matter, when rendered, can have no practical effect on the existing controversy.'" N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.P., 408 N.J. Super. 252, 261 (App. Div. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Greenfield v. N.J. Dep't of Corrs., 382 N.J. Super. 254, 257-58, (App. Div. 2006)), certif. denied, 201 N.J. 153 (2010). "It is firmly established that controversies which have become moot or academic prior to judicial resolution ordinarily will be dismissed." Cinque v. N.J. Dep't. of Corrs., 261 N.J. Super. 242, 243 (App. Div. 1993). "'[C]courts will not decide cases in which the issue is hypothetical[.]'" Ibid. (quoting Anderson v. Sills, 143 N.J. Super. 432, 437 (Ch. Div. 1976)). However, an appeal will not be moot when "a party still suffers from the adverse consequences . . . caused by [the prior] proceeding[.]" A.P., supra, 408 N.J. Super. at 262 (citations and quotation marks omitted).
Here, J.C.'s June 14, 2011 identified surrender consenting to E.C.'s adoption, made after she filed this appeal, precludes further review of the orders entered in this proceeding because our review can have no practical effect on whether E.C. should be returned to J.C.'s care. Id. at 261. Accordingly, the appeal must be dismissed.
We would be remiss, however, if we failed to clarify an apparent misunderstanding regarding "'the parallel but not congruent track' of Title [Nine] and Title [Thirty] proceedings." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. K.M., 136 N.J. 546, 560 (1994) (quoting In re Guardianship of G.S., III, 137 N.J. 168, 179 (1994)). Specifically, the Division withdrew its request for relief under Title Nine in favor of solely exercising its authority under Title Thirty, N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12. Despite the change in the basis of the litigation, the court continued to conduct the proceeding as if it remained a Title Nine matter, without noting the timeframes and procedures applicable to an action pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12. We believe it is important to review those procedures designed to respect a parent's "constitutionally protected right to maintain a relationship with [her] child." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 279 (2007).
These are the relevant facts. On April 7, 2009, the Division filed its complaint under Title Nine, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21 to -8.73, alleging E.C. suffered abuse as a result of J.C.'s mental illness. J.C. experienced a psychiatric breakdown following the death of her husband. Although treated for bipolar disorder and schizophrenic conditions, J.C. had not been compliant with her prescribed medications for several months, causing her to become increasingly agitated, paranoid, and delusional. When interviewed by a Division caseworker, E.C. described the difficulties he experienced and explained he went to live with relatives because he no longer felt safe with J.C.*fn2
The Division learned E.C.'s adult sister had previously moved from J.C.'s home to live with relatives because of similar complaints. The court conducted an initial hearing, after which it granted the Division's request for care, custody and supervision of E.C.
The matter proceeded under Title Nine and the Division extended services to achieve E.C.'s safe return to J.C.'s care. On August 19, 2009, the date scheduled for a fact-finding hearing, the Division withdrew all Title Nine claims of abuse and sought to proceed solely under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12, asserting the family was in need of services. Neither the Law Guardian nor J.C. objected. The Family Part ...