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New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. M.C.

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

November 9, 2018

NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF CHILD PROTECTION AND PERMANENCY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
M.C., Defendant, and J.R., Defendant-Appellant. IN THE MATTER OF J.C.-R., a Minor.

          Argued October 22, 2018

          On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FN-15-0211-16.

          Janet A. Allegro, Designated Counsel, argued the cause for appellant (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Janet A. Allegro, on the briefs).

          Cynthia L. McGeachen, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Francis A. Raso, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

          David B. Valentin, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for minor (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney; David B. Valentin, on the brief).

          Before Judges Sabatino, Sumners and Mitterhoff.

          OPINION

          SABATINO, P.J.A.D.

         This appeal involves the standards and procedures for in camera review and judicial disclosure of a parent's presumptively-confidential juvenile records in child welfare litigation brought by the Division of Child Protection and Permanency ("the Division"). Although juvenile records disclosure issues have arisen before in other settings, no published opinion to date has addressed them in the context of child welfare litigation brought by the Division.

         The Law Guardian in this case objected to a father having unsupervised parenting time with his eighteen-month-old daughter, having learned that he had been adjudicated delinquent several years earlier for committing sexual offenses upon two minors. The father opposed the court reviewing or disclosing his juvenile records, asserting they are confidential under N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-60.

         After hearing oral argument, the Family Part judge reviewed the father's records in camera. The judge then released the records in their entirety to counsel, pursuant to a protective order confining their use to the present Title 30 litigation. Eventually, the judge suspended the father's visitation with his young daughter, unless and until he submitted to a psychological evaluation.

         On appeal, the father challenges the manner in which the trial court addressed his privacy concerns relating to his juvenile records. Specifically, he argues: the Law Guardian's request for in camera review of the records was based upon hearsay information and was insufficient to trigger such review; the trial court erroneously declined his request to hold a hearing and conduct oral argument after completing the in camera review; and the court failed to adhere to Supreme Court precedent and provide a statement of reasons for its determination to release all 176 pages of his juvenile records to the Division and the Law Guardian. The father does not contest, however, the trial court's restriction of his parenting time. In fact, he surrendered his parental rights to his daughter while this appeal was pending.

         For the reasons that follow, we affirm the Family Part judge's decision to conduct an in camera review of the records. We also uphold the judge's denial of the father's request for the court to conduct an additional hearing after the in camera review was completed. However, because the court's decision to release the records without further hearing was not accompanied by a statement of reasons, as required by case law and Rule 1:7-4, we remand for the court to reconsider the matter, make any appropriate modifications, and generate the requisite statement of reasons.

         I.

         Defendant J.R. ("the father") and defendant M.C. ("the mother"), are the biological parents of a daughter, J.C.-R., who was born in December 2014.[1]The parents were never married and did not live together at the time of the allegations in this case.

         A. The Division's Initial Involvement

         The Division was first notified of concerns regarding the child's welfare in April 2015, upon receiving a report that the mother had expressed suicidal ideations and the father had a history of stealing.

         Through an ensuing investigation, the Division learned that the mother had a history of substance abuse and was on probation through the Pretrial Intervention Program for possession of crack cocaine and burglary. The investigation revealed the father also had a history with the Division. In particular, when he was fourteen, the father was arrested in February 2009 and again in May 2009, and charged with multiple counts of aggravated sexual assault for sexually assaulting his nine-year-old neighbor and his eleven-year-old cousin. The Division was contacted after each of those incidents.[2]

         In May 2015, the Division closed its initial investigation into the parents, determining the April 2015 allegations of abuse were unfounded.

         B. The 2016 Referral

         On March 11, 2016, the Division received a new referral from police, reporting a concern for the child's safety while she was in the care of her mother. The report was made by the child's maternal grandmother, who informed police that the mother had left home that day with the child in her vehicle, and the grandmother had observed the mother driving erratically. The grandmother told the police the mother abused drugs frequently, and that she would often leave home for several days at a time, sometimes bringing the child with her and sometimes leaving the child with the grandmother.

         The Division dispatched a special response worker to investigate these reports. After being confronted, the mother admitted that she had bought crack cocaine and smoked it in the child's presence. She was arrested and charged with possession of narcotics and the possession of drug paraphernalia.

         C. The Division's Litigation

         On March 11, 2016, the Division case worker conducted an emergency "Dodd"[3] removal of the child pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.29 to-8.30. The child was temporarily placed with her maternal grandmother. The Division filed a verified complaint in the Family Part to appoint a Law Guardian with temporary custody. The father was named in the complaint as a "dispositional defendant" only.

         After an initial hearing, the judge determined that removing the child was necessary to avoid ongoing risk to the child's life, safety, or health. Pursuant to N.J.S.A 30:4C-11.2, the judge ordered the emergency removal of the child from the care of the mother. The child was placed in the immediate custody, care, and supervision of the Division. The parents were allowed to have weekly visitation supervised by the Division, and were required to attend substance abuse evaluations.

         In April 2016, the trial court ordered the father to submit to a psychological evaluation and extended assessment, and attend parenting classes. The order specified that if all counsel consented after receiving the results of the father's assessment, the father could begin unsupervised visitation on a self-executing basis.

         D. The Request for Disclosure of the ...


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