September 17, 2013
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, Plaintiff-Respondent,
C.S., Defendant-Appellant. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF N.S., a minor.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 9, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FG-02-97-11.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant C.S. (Miles Lessem, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Andrea M. Silkowitz, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel and on the brief).
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for minor, N.S. (Damen J. Thiel, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
Before Judges Parrillo, Harris, and Guadagno.
This is a Title Thirty guardianship case. Defendant C.S. appeals from the July 11, 2012 judgment terminating her parental rights to Nina,  who was born in July 2004. We are satisfied that the record fully supports the decision to terminate C.S.'s parental rights. The Family Part applied the correct legal standards to its factual conclusions. After a review of the record, we discern no basis for disturbing the court's determinations. Accordingly, we affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in Judge John A. Conte's thorough forty-five page written opinion. We add the following comments.
The Division of Youth and Family Services first became involved with the family in 2004. In the ensuing six years, the Division was again involved on multiple occasions for what were a series of relatively minor interactions. Finally, however, the Division developed a strong suspicion that C.S. had a longstanding and unresolved substance abuse problem.
By May 2010, after being arrested and incarcerated, C.S. tested positive for very high levels of opiates, which could not be readily explained by the prescriptions provided by her physician. During a detoxification process, C.S. appeared to be suffering from hallucinations and exhibited delusional behavior. She was ultimately admitted to Hackensack University Medical Center for psychiatric care. The Family Part entered an order on May 27, 2010, placing Nina in the custody of the Division, and Nina went to live with her paternal aunt, F.S.
In the following months, C.S. regularly tested positive for narcotic medications. A psychological evaluation conducted in August 2010 recommended that Nina remain in her current placement, and that she should not be returned to C.S.'s care for the foreseeable future. Over the next several months, C.S. failed or refused to remain in contact with the Division, and neglected to attend several meetings and substance abuse evaluations arranged by the Division. The record clearly reveals that C.S. has suffered from a history of substance abuse, notwithstanding her ability to occasionally produce negative drug screens. In August 2011, C.S. was again incarcerated, and her contact with Nina became sporadic due to C.S.'s unwillingness to participate in arranged visitation.
On May 14, June 4, and June 13, 2011, a guardianship trial was conducted before Judge Conte. Three witnesses were produced by the Division: adoption specialist Lakeshia Dennis-Reyes; Nina's aunt F.S.; and Robert Kanen, Ph.D. No witnesses were presented by either the Law Guardian (who supports the Division's permanency plan) or C.S.
Based upon a documentary record and the testimony produced during trial, Judge Conte concluded that all four factors of the best interests test, see N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a), were satisfied by clear and convincing evidence. This appeal followed.
On appeal, C.S. argues that the Division failed to: (1) prove that C.S. is unwilling or unable to provide a stable and safe home for Nina; (2) provide C.S. with reasonable services to correct the circumstances that led to the child's placement outside of the home; and (3) demonstrate that the termination of C.S.'s parental rights will not do more harm than good.
The record amply supports Judge Conte's contrary conclusion that the Division satisfied each of the four factors of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). The judge recounted C.S.'s ongoing and persistent failure to attend the majority of substance abuse evaluations scheduled for her and, while under the supervision of the Division, she made little headway in resolving her recurrent substance abuse problems. The judge noted that the Division provided reasonable substance abuse services to C.S., of which she was unwilling or unable to take advantage. Finally, Judge Conte properly recognized that although Nina would not be emotionally untouched by the termination of C.S.'s parental rights, the child's overarching need for permanency and stability, which could not be provided by C.S. (but which could be provided by F.S.), prevailed.
This appeal comes to us wrapped in two levels of deference. First, it is entitled to the deference to which any trial court's fact-finding is entitled. J.D. v. M.A.D., 429 N.J.Super. 34, 42 (App. Div. 2012) (citing Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)). Second, it is encased by the special deference accorded by the Family Part's particularized jurisdiction in family matters possessed of its acknowledged expertise in the field of domestic relations. See N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. T.S., 429 N.J.Super. 202, 216 (App. Div. 2013) (citing Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (1998)). Judges who "hear the case and see the witnesses . . . are in a better position to evaluate the credibility and weight to be afforded testimonial evidence." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. I.Y.A., 400 N.J.Super. 77, 89 (App. Div. 2008) (citing In re Guardianship of D.M.H., 161 N.J. 365, 382 (1999)); see also N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 293 (2007) (reinstating the trial court's findings and careful analysis); N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.R., 405 N.J.Super. 418 (App. Div. 2009) (affirming the denial of termination of parental rights of the mother).
After appraising the record in light of the findings of fact contained in the trial judge's written opinion, we find nothing that would impel our intervention. Judge Conte carefully cataloged the relevant evidence and explained his reasons in a logical and forthright fashion. An appellate court, when presented with such an illuminated record, need not repeat the details of the case at length or replicate the trial court's opinion.
The four factors of the best interests test place an effective brake upon unwarranted terminations of parental rights. In their application, the factors "are not [discrete] and separate but represent an integrated multi-element test that must be applied to determine whether termination of parental rights is in the best interests of the child." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.W., 398 N.J.Super. 266, 285 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 196 N.J. 347 (2008). When viewed as the trial judge viewed them, those factors were properly evaluated and applied.