On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Union County, Docket No. FG-20-19-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued November 27, 2012 - Before Judges Fisher, Alvarez and St. John.
Defendant T.C.H. appeals a judgment terminating her parental rights to her eighth child,*fn1 L.R.T.J., who was born on December 2, 2004.*fn2 Defendant does not specifically contest the trial judge's findings on the first and second prongs of the statutory test for the termination of parental rights, see N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a); she instead focuses on the third and fourth prongs, claiming "the willful blindness and inexcusable delay" of plaintiff Division of Youth and Family Services*fn3 "in assessing and failing to either approve or disapprove" the maternal grandmother's request to raise the child with his siblings "undermined the foundation of the best interests determination" and requires reversal. We reject these arguments and affirm for the reasons set forth in Judge Kathryn A. Brock's comprehensive and thoughtful written opinion. We add the following additional comments.
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 relate to and 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).
The child in question was removed from defendant's custody, for the second time, on July 31, 2008. The court entered an order on August 4, 2008, which memorialized a finding that continuing in defendant's custody would be detrimental to the child's welfare because of defendant's long history of substance abuse and because defendant had left the child with her mother, D.S. (hereafter "the grandmother"), who, as Judge Brock held, "left [the child] with a seventeen year old with responsibility to care for seven other children," who ranged from sixteen years old to fourteen months old.*fn4 The court initially determined that the child should be removed from the grandmother's home due to the inadequate supervision available from the seventeen-year old when the grandmother was not present.*fn5 And ...