October 1, 2013
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF CHILD PROTECTION AND PERMANENCY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
M.R., Defendant-Appellant. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF NY.R. AND NE.R., minors.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 23, 2013.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-158-12.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Richard Sparaco, Designated Counsel, on the brief).
John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Jennifer A. Lochel, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for minors-respondents, NY.R. and NE.R. (David Valentin, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, of counsel and on the brief).
Before Judges Harris and Guadagno.
This is a Title Thirty guardianship case. Defendant M.R. appeals from the January 11, 2013 judgment of guardianship terminating his parental rights to Nia (now six years old) and Naledi (now five years old). We are satisfied that the record fully supports the Family Part's decision to terminate M.R.'s parental rights. The court applied the correct legal standards to its well-founded factual conclusions. As there is no basis for disturbing the court's findings, we affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in Judge Linda G. Baxter's comprehensive oral opinion. We add the following comments.
M.R., now approaching his twenty-sixth birthday, was, at the time of trial, involuntarily committed at a mental health facility in Maryland. He has suffered a lifetime of mental illness that is not likely to abate in the near future. He expressly eschews reunification with his daughters and instead, offers his mother —— the girls' grandmother —— as an appropriate caretaker so that his parental rights are preserved.
M.R.'s failure (or refusal) to play a role in his daughters' lives commenced almost from the moment of their 2007 births in Baltimore. Although he lived with them (and their mother) for several months before they moved to New Jersey, he provided little emotional or other support to the infants. After they moved (leaving M.R. with transitory accommodations in Baltimore), and even before the Division's removal of the children in August 2010, M.R. rarely sought to be with them, and never followed through when he did seek visitation. Currently, the girls live with C.A., who is committed to their adoption.
At the inception of the Division's involvement, it did not know the whereabouts of M.R. Nevertheless, it did consider him as a possible placement for the girls, and made efforts to find him. At that time, M.R.'s mother, G.P., was contacted, and she stated that she did not know where her son was. She further explained that he was unable to care for the girls due to his compromised mental health. During the conversation, G.P. expressed an interest in her grandchildren, and the Division began to explore an interstate placement through an investigation by its counterpart in Maryland.
On August 29, 2011, the Baltimore City Department of Human Services notified the Division that G.P. failed to comply with her first step in the home-stay application process. Specifically, G.P. failed to attend either of the mandatory information meetings she was scheduled for in February and March 2011. However, the Division failed to timely notify the girls' grandmother that she was denied as a suitable placement for the girls. A rule-out letter was mailed, but it was addressed incorrectly. Nevertheless, Judge Baxter found circumstantial evidence to support the Division's contention that, notwithstanding the misaddress, G.P. was aware that she had missed the information meetings and had been ruled out as a suitable caretaker.
On June 20, 2012, Dr. Linda Jeffery performed a bonding evaluation with the girls and their foster mother. No bonding evaluation was ever conducted with M.R. or G.P. Moreover, no services were provided to M.R. by the Division because he never sought reunification with his daughters.
The guardianship trial began on January 3, 2013. The Division presented testimony of Dr. Jeffery; Andrea Mathis, a Division permanency worker; and Lyanna Torres, a Division adoption worker. M.R., who was then involuntarily committed in a Maryland mental health facility, presented the testimony of G.P.. The children's mother also testified when she voluntarily surrendered her parental rights.
On January 11, 2013, Judge Baxter explained in detail why she was terminating M.R.'s parental rights. First, she recited an accurate history of the events leading to the removal of the girls from their mother, and then properly chronicled M.R.'s and his mother's persistent lack of involvement with, and inattention to, the children. The judge found "both girls have achieved a secure bond with the foster mother and they would suffer severe and enduring harm if they were removed from her custody." Concluding that G.P. was not an appropriate caretaker and "was not as interested in having her granddaughter come to live with her, as she claims, " the judge rejected M.R.'s contention that the Division had failed to properly find the grandmother as an appropriate placement so as to avoid termination of M.R.'s parental rights. Ultimately, Judge Baxter determined that the Division had satisfied the four factors of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) by clear and convincing evidence. This appeal followed.
This appeal comes to us fortified by two levels of deference. First, it is entitled to the deference to which any trial judge'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 enveloped 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).
On appeal, M.R. presents the following arguments for our consideration:
POINT I: THERE WAS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO PROVE BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT THE STATUTORY REQUIREMENTS OF N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15 AND 30:4C-15.1 WERE MET.
POINT I(A): THERE WAS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO PROVE BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT EITHER [NIA] OR [NALEDI]'S SAFETY, HEALTH OR DEVELOPMENT HAS BEEN OR WILL CONTINUE TO BE ENDANGERED BY THE PARENTAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THEIR FATHER, M.R., UNDER THE FIRST PRONG.
POINT KB); THERE WAS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE UNDER THE SECOND PRONG TO PROVE BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT M.R. WAS UNWILLING OR UNABLE TO ELIMINATE THE HARM FACING THE CHILDREN OR THAT THE DELAY OF PERMANENT PLACEMENT WILL ADD TO THE HARM.
POINT 1(C); THE DIVISION FAILED TO PROVE THE THIRD PRONG BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE BECAUSE IT DID NOT CONSIDER ALTERNATIVES TO TERMNATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS.
POINT 1(D): THERE WAS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE UNDER THE FOURTH PRONG TO PROVE BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT TERMINATION OF M.R.'S PARENTAL RIGHTS WILL NOT DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD.
After scrutinizing the record in light of the detailed findings contained in the trial judge's oral opinion, we find nothing amiss that would impel our intervention. Judge Baxter carefully cataloged the relevant evidence and explicated her rationale in a logical and forthright fashion. An appellate court, when in possession of such a complete record, need not repeat the details of the case at length or replicate the trial judge's opinion. Suffice it to say, there was overwhelming evidence, as marshaled by the Division, to warrant the termination of M.R.'s parental rights.