NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF CHILD PROTECTION AND PERMANENCY v. AND IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF

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Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF CHILD PROTECTION AND PERMANENCY, Plaintiff–Respondent, v. G.B. AND T.R., Defendants–Appellants. IN RE: THE GUARDIANSHIP OF T.B.I.B.,

A–1999–12T2A–2131–12T2

-- December 04, 2013

Before Judges Yannotti, Ashrafi and St. John. Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant G.B. (Rhonda J. Panken, Designated Counsel, on the brief). Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant T.R. (Cary L. Winslow, Designated Counsel, on the brief). John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel;  Nora P. Pearce, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief). Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian, attorney for the minor (Karen A. Lodeserto, Designated Counsel, on the brief).

In these consolidated appeals, we review challenges to a Family Part judgment of guardianship terminating the parental rights of defendants G.B., mother, and T.R., father, and permitting the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (the Division) to secure their child's adoption.   On appeal, G.B. and T.R. argue that the Division failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence all four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C–15.1(a).   We have considered these arguments in light of the record and applicable legal standards, and affirm.

I.

T.B.I.B. was born in the beginning of January 2010 to G.B. and T.R., who do not have any other children together.   G.B., however, has five other children, all of whom had been removed from her care by the Division prior to the events giving rise to this litigation.   Shortly after T.B.I.B.'s birth, a hospital reporter contacted the Division because personnel voiced concerns about “erratic paranoid” behavior by T.R. as well as G.B.'s refusal to submit to a drug screening.   Division caseworkers therefore commenced an investigation on January 6 and interviewed defendants.   A caseworker described the exchange with T.R. as follows:

It was difficult to communicate with [T.R.] He was angry and hostile.   He accused the Division of being racist and he accused the Division of just removing his son because of racist reasons.   He often cited quotes from the Bible, which you couldn't really make relevance of.

Upon completing the interviews and discovering G.B.'s prior history with respect to her other children, Division supervisors initiated a “Dodd” removal 1 and took custody of T.B.I.B. on January 8.

The Division had initially encountered G.B. in February 2000, when the police contacted the agency after discovering “deplorable condition[s]” at G.B.'s apartment during an eviction proceeding.   The Division consequently removed three of G.B.'s children from her care.   In December 2002, G.B. gave birth to a fourth child.   The Division immediately removed, and was granted guardianship over, that child.   In November 2004, the Division removed a fifth newborn child from G.B. Her parental rights to four out of the five children were ultimately terminated.   Those four children were subsequently adopted by their foster families, while the Division has kept the remaining child in protective care due to special needs.

On January 11, 2010, the Division convened a “Family Team Meeting” at its local office, which included defendants, paternal grandmother I.R., and paternal great-grandmother J.P. on behalf of paternal aunt V.N. Both I.R. and V.N. expressed interest in being considered for “relative resource placements,” and defendants apparently agreed to the placement of T.B.I.B. with I.R. At that meeting, I.R. professed that T.R. was incapable of caring for a newborn baby.   The Division thereafter evaluated I.R. and determined that she was an “appropriate placement” for T.B.I.B.

On January 12, 2010, the Division filed a complaint seeking temporary custody of T.B.I.B. On the same day, a consent order was entered granting temporary custody to the Division.   Also ordered were psychological evaluations of defendants as well as an assessment of relatives who might facilitate supervised visitation.   The judge determined that removal was necessary because

[G.B.] has been unable to provide her children with a safe, stable home environment, ․ has demonstrated no ability over the past nine years to establish a safe, stable home environment for her children;  and has failed to effectively assume a stabilizing, dependable or nurturing parental role․

T.B.I.B. has remained in the custody and care of his grandmother, I.R., since January 12, 2010.   T.B.I.B. lives in I.R.'s home, along with his uncle, I.R.'s youngest adult son.   I.R. has enrolled T.B.I.B. in daycare and attends to his medical, educational and other needs.

Pursuant to the January 2010 consent order, T.R. attended a psychological evaluation.   John Quintana, Ph.D., conducted that assessment.   Dr. Quintana diagnosed T.R. with “delusional disorder grandiose and persecutory,” and recommended further psychiatric treatment, including medication.   Dr. Quintana also advised the Division that T.R. should receive parenting skills training.

G.B. also received an initial psychological evaluation by Dr. Quintana in January 2010.   G.B. informed him that her other children had been removed from her care because of health and housing problems.   Dr. Quintana noted that G.B. was coherent, but defensive and “not very forthcoming.”   Regarding G.B.'s explanation of the prior history with her other children, Dr. Quintana described her insight as “limited” and “not very extensive.”   As a result of that evaluation, Dr. Quintana recommended additional psychiatric evaluation, parenting classes and individual counseling.

Upon gaining temporary custody of T.B.I.B., I.R. agreed to a plan of weekly visitation by defendants at her home, in accordance with the consent order and in consultation with the Division.   However, in June 2010, I.R. requested that visits by T.R. cease after multiple “outbursts.”   G.B. continued to have permission for visitations at I.R.'s house, but any future visits with T.R. were to occur at the Division's nearby office.

Meanwhile, after removing T.B.I.B., the Division scheduled psychological evaluations for defendants and referred them to agency-provided services, the Family Life Center (FLC) for parenting skills and Robin's Nest visitation program in particular.

On the May 4, 2010 return date, defendants waived their right to a fact-finding hearing and admitted that they were in need of services.   Defendants stipulated to continued Division custody over T.B.I.B, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C–12.   The corresponding order scheduled an August return date for compliance review and noted that “[T.R.] is refusing all services other than FLC.”

As the record reflects, what followed next was a recurring pattern of noncompliance by the defendants with court-ordered services.   On August 10, 2010, defendants were ordered to complete psychological and psychiatric evaluations.   T.R. was additionally ordered to attend anger management counseling.   On February 1, 2011, the Family Part, persuaded that neither defendant had been compliant with reasonably-provided services, accepted the Division's permanent plan for adoption of the child by I.R. A permanency order was therefore entered, which extended temporary guardianship of T.B.I.B. and required the Division to initiate the appropriate action within sixty days.   Consequently, on March 14, 2011, the Division filed an application seeking to terminate defendants' parental rights.

On April 4, 2011, an order was entered terminating the original litigation and directing defendants to complete a psychological and bonding evaluation and a parenting-skills class.   The judge also ordered G.B. to attend counseling, noting that G.B. had been removed from the Robin's Nest visitation program for allowing T.R. continued residence in her home.   G.B. and T.R. were granted supervised visitation at the local Division office, rather than in I.R.'s home, conditioned upon twenty-four-hour notice.

At subsequent hearings on June 13, 2011 and March 19, 2012, the court entered additional orders directing defendants to attend evaluations and skills programs on predetermined dates.   At the latter hearing, the judge entered a second permanency order reaffirming the Division's plan of termination of parental rights followed by relative home adoption.

G.B. had attended a second psychiatric evaluation in August 2010 as well as an FLC referral, but otherwise failed to comply meaningfully with referrals and appointments for Division services.   G.B. completed the initial referral to the FLC parenting-skills program in 2010.   However, FLC staff informed the Division caseworker that G.B. failed to grasp the concepts of the program.   The Division again referred G.B. to FLC in April, and then June, 2011.   G.B. was also referred at least four times to the Robin's Nest program, which consisted of supervised visits with T.B.I.B. at her home.

Meanwhile, in December 2010, the Division suspended G.B.'s participation upon discovering that T.R. continued to cohabitate with her.   The Division felt that future visits would be unsafe “unless it was mother and child only.”   According to the assigned caseworker, G.B. was given the option to continue with the Robin's Nest program if she removed T.R. from the home.   G.B. evidently declined to do so, as subsequent visits revealed that T.R. remained in the home.

In June 2012, the Division referred G.B. to the New York Avenue Family Success Center for additional parenting education.   A counselor at that center repeatedly tried to schedule an intake, but G.B. indicated that she was too busy or was unable to do it.   For a period of one year during 2011 and 2012, G.B. did not have any contact with T.B.I.B.

For his part, T.R. was also invited to participate in the FLC program but failed to complete it because he was discharged for inappropriate and aggressive behavior.   According to the testimony of a Division caseworker:

[T.R.] had an inability to empathize with the baby.   He didn't understand what empathy was.   If the baby would cry he would become extremely upset.   On one date he did not know how to handle the child, so he called [I.R.] to ask her what he should do with the baby.   He continually chastised and put [G.B.] down because she didn't have custody of her other children.   He argued with other parents at [FLC]. He spent time on the computer instead of having time bonding with his child.

Furthermore, FLC staff grew concerned about T.R.'s hostility and anger towards the staff and other attendees, and therefore barred him from reentering the program pending anger management counseling.

T.R. never attended counseling, and refused multiple referrals for psychiatric evaluation.   Linda Mathes, the assigned Division caseworker, characterized the communications and interactions between T.R. and the agency's employees as follows:

Extremely difficult.   At times, hostile.   At one point the workers were chased out of the apartment and down stairs.   We were advised not to go there without a police escort.

[S]ometimes he would become very sexually – graphically, sexually explicit that he was ․ being anally raped by the Division and it was like having a phallus stuck into his mouth.

According to Mathes, during such episodes, G.B. would do nothing and just sit there “somewhat detached.”

Several more orders were entered requiring defendants to comply with the evaluations.   On April 17, 2012, as yet another order was issued, finding that defendants did not attend scheduled evaluations.   Accordingly, the judge restrained defendants from visiting I.R.'s home.   On July 2, 2012, the judge once again directed G.B. to attend a psychological and bonding evaluation on July 17.   G.B. once more agreed to undergo a psychological and bonding evaluation.   However, G.B. later resisted an evaluation by the Division's psychologist, stating that she would get her own doctor to do it, and only agreed to the bonding aspect.

After multiple continuances due to G.B.'s hospitalization for lymphedema, the case proceeded to a two-day trial before the judge on September 19 and October 15, 2012.   The Division presented four witnesses, and G.B. testified on her own behalf.   T.R. was represented by appointed counsel, but did not attend the proceedings.

The Division presented testimony from Dr. Roger T. Barr, the psychologist whom the Division had asked to conduct a bonding evaluation of T.B.I.B. and G.B. Dr. Barr testified that that evaluation was scheduled for the morning of July 17, 2012 at the Division's Atlantic East office.   However, G.B. called Dr. Barr about a minute before the meeting was to commence, and informed him that she did not want to attend.   Even though Dr. Barr explained that a Division caseworker would be arriving imminently with T.B.I.B., G.B. nonetheless declined to attend.   G.B. did not offer an explanation.

At trial, I.R. recounted several troubling events involving T.R., subsequent to her obtaining custody of T.B.I.B. One such incident occurred in June 2011, when T.R. showed up unannounced at a family outing to an amusement park.   After I.R. suggested getting a cart to transport T.B.I.B. around the park, T.R. “went crazy.”   T.R. grabbed the baby and started screaming at I.R. During the argument, T.B.I.B. lost his shoe, and when a park employee pointed out that fact to the family members, T.R. began “cussing the man out.”   I.R. testified that as she stood there holding the child, T.R. turned around and “said some stuff to [T.B.I.B.] about me wanting him sexually.”

Another episode took place during a visitation at I.R.'s home in 2011.   G.B. was present, but had stepped out of the apartment.   As I.R. sat inside with the baby in her arms, T.R. was “foaming at the mouth ․ and cursing and screaming and threatening to hit me in the head with this 20–pound urn.”   T.R. then threatened to throw himself off the balcony.   T.R. only calmed down once his uncle, I.R.'s brother, arrived at the home.

During several other prearranged visits with G.B., T.R. arrived without receiving permission from I.R. I.R. elaborated at length about T.R.'s threatening behavior at one such visit in May 2011.   She explained how T.R. “was getting ready to be real physical with me.”   I.R. became so concerned that she felt compelled to lock herself in her car.   I.R. described how T.R. snatched away her purse and cell phone.

[T.B.I.B.] was in the car.   He had to witness that.   He witnessed his father reach in, snatch my pocketbook, throw it out on the ․ because he was trying to make me hit him.   He was really trying to make me fight him.   So he was just like, at me.   Do what you want to do․  [M]y son [afterwards] called everybody in my phone, said all kind of crazy stuff.

As this unfolded, G.B. apparently tried to mollify T.R. but ultimately just sat there “looking shocked.”   After that incident, for approximately one whole year, T.R. never visited or inquired about T.B.I.B. For the whole of 2012 leading up to the trial, T.R. did not request supervised visitation or other services, even though the Division caseworker personally visited T.R. at home and called to discuss these possibilities.2

On December 18, 2012, the trial judge issued a written opinion and order terminating T.R.'s and G.B.'s parental rights and granting guardianship of T.B.I.B. to the Division.   The judge found that the Division had proven all four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C–15.1(a) by clear and convincing evidence with respect to both defendants.   Accordingly, the judge concluded that the best interests of T.B.I.B. demanded termination of both parents' rights.   It is from that decision that defendants appeal.

II.

Our review of an order terminating parental rights is limited.  In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002).  “We will not disturb the family court's decision ․ when there is substantial credible evidence in the record to support the court's findings.”  N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. E.P., 196 N.J. 88, 104 (2008).  “We ordinarily defer to the factual findings of the trial court because it has the opportunity to make first-hand credibility judgments about the witnesses who appear on the stand;  it has a ‘feel of the case’ that can never be realized by a review of the cold record.”  Ibid. (quoting N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 293 (2007)).   Our deference stems from recognition of “the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters.”  N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.C. III, 201 N.J. 328, 343 (2010).

Accordingly, “[o]nly when the trial court's conclusions are so ‘clearly mistaken’ or ‘wide of the mark’ should an appellate court intervene and make its own findings to ensure that there is not a denial of justice.”  E.P., supra, 196 N.J. at 104 (quoting N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. G.L., 191 N.J. 596, 605 (2007)).  “[W]here the focus of the dispute is ․ alleged error in the trial judge's evaluation of the underlying facts and the implications to be drawn therefrom, the traditional scope of review is expanded.”  M.M., supra, 189 N.J. at 279 (alteration in original)(internal quotation marks omitted).   Yet, “even in those circumstances[,] we will accord deference unless the trial court's findings went so wide of the mark that a mistake must have been made.”  Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted).

“The focus of a termination-of-parental-rights hearing is the best interests of the child[,]” and the Division must “satisfy by clear and convincing evidence four factors, known as the best-interests-of-the-child test, set forth in N.J.S.A. 30:4C–15.1(a).”  N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. F.M., 211 N.J. 420, 447 (2012).   Those statutory factors are:

(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.   Such harm may include evidence that separating the child from his resource family parents would cause serious and enduring emotional or psychological harm to the child;

(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.

[N.J.S.A. 30:4C–15.1(a);  see also In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 347–48 (1999).]

The four prongs require a fact-sensitive analysis and “are neither discrete nor separate.   They overlap to provide a composite picture of what may be necessary to advance the best interests of the children.”  M.M., supra, 189 N.J. at 280 (emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted)(quoting F.M., supra, 375 N.J.Super. at 258).

Here, the trial judge concluded that the Division established by clear and convincing evidence each of the four prongs with respect to both defendants.   We address each prong, and defendants' corresponding contentions, in turn.

Regarding G.B., the judge determined prong one was established because she “demonstrates a complete lack of insight and an inability to safely parent the child or to even take steps to protect the child.”   In support of his finding, the judge highlighted the following facts:  (1) G.B. repeatedly failed to complete or rejected parental-skills services offered by the Division;  (2) G.B. failed to grasp and eliminate the risks to her child from T.R.'s aggressive and delusional behavior;  (3) G.B. failed to visit T.B.I.B. for a period of approximately one year while the litigation unfolded;  and (4) each of G.B.'s other five children have been involved with the Division and her parental rights were terminated.

The judge acknowledged G.B.'s perfunctory efforts to involve herself in T.B.I.B.'s life, but nevertheless found her “lack of interaction” to be a clear indication that she “lacks interest, commitment and is not equipped to meet the medical, developmental, or safety needs of T.B.I.B.”

G.B. argues that the court erred since there is no evidence that she caused actual harm to T.B.I.B. However, that is not the test.   The Division was not obliged to show that T.B.I.B. was actually harmed.   Rather, a showing, by clear and convincing evidence, of potential for future harm is sufficient.  N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.G., 344 N.J.Super. 418, 440 (App.Div.2001).   A parent's inability to nurture or care for her child “is a harm ․ that is cognizable under the best interests standard.”  K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 356.   Likewise, “[a] parent's withdrawal of that solicitude, nurture, and care for an extended period of time is in itself a harm that endangers the health and development of the child.”  D.M.H., supra, 161 N.J. at 379.

Also relevant to the first-prong analysis is a parent's inability or refusal to eliminate potential harm from another parent.   See, e.g., F.M., supra, 211 N.J. at 449 (2012)(“[A] mother's relationship with her child's potentially dangerous father may be an appropriate consideration if that relationship poses a clear threat to the child.   A parent has the obligation to protect a child from harms that can be inflicted by another parent.” (citations omitted));  M.M., supra, 189 N.J. at 267, 281–82, 288–90 (one parent's destabilizing influence on the home must be considered when deciding whether to terminate parental rights of the other).

The trial judge's fact-findings and conclusions were amply supported by the record.   The judge did not improperly rely upon T.R.'s bad conduct alone to reach his conclusions.   Instead, the judge found G.B.'s conduct independently presented the risk of harm to T.B.I.B. because G.B. was unable to sever her ties with T.R., and thereby provide T.B.I.B. with a safe and secure home.

Likewise, we discern no error in the judge's determination that T.R. “endangers and will continue to endanger the safety, health, and development of T.B.I.B.” The judge was presented with sufficient facts evidencing that T.R. suffers from “severe” mental health problems yet failed to resolve them despite ample opportunities to do so.   The judge also credited the testimony of I.R. that her son was incapable of caring for a newborn child because of his mental health issues.   Moreover, the judge noted that T.R. failed to complete meaningfully any of the services provided by the Division.

On the basis of the foregoing, we conclude that substantial and credible evidence supported the trial judge's findings on prong one.

The second prong requires the Division to show that the parent is unable or unwilling to eliminate the harm facing the child, and a delay in the child's permanent placement will cause further harm.  N.J.S.A. 30:4C–15.1(a)(2).   The focus of this inquiry is to determine “whether the parent has cured and overcome the initial harm that endangered the health, safety, or welfare of the child, and is able to continue a parental relationship without recurrent harm to the child.”  K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 348.   Alternatively, the State may show “that the parent is unable to provide a safe and stable home for the child and that the delay in securing permanency continues or adds to the child's harm.”  Id. at 348–49.  “The question is whether the parent can become fit in time to meet the needs of the child.”  N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. T.S., 417 N.J.Super. 228, 244 (App.Div.2010), certif. denied, 205 N.J. 519 (2011).

The trial judge found clear and convincing evidence of G.B.'s inability to eliminate the harm facing T.B.I.B., as well as her inability or unwillingness to provide T.B.I.B. with a safe and stable home.   We agree.

The record reflects that the Division tried multiple times to engage G.B. in counseling, psychiatric evaluations, individual counseling, family team meetings and visitation opportunities tailored to G.B.'s particular requirements.   Although G.B. apparently possesses stable housing and has participated in some of the Division's programs, she did not complete or benefit from the most significant assistance offered to her, namely psychological counseling, visitation and parenting classes.

The Division referred G.B. to Robin's Nest on four separate occasions, and continued to refer her to other programs like the New York Avenue Family Success Center despite her initial nonparticipation.   But G.B. refused such services and missed most scheduled evaluations.   Moreover, both I.R. and caseworker Mathes, testified that G.B. showed a lack of interest in her child's well-being for extended periods of time.   G.B. did not have contact with T.B.I.B. for approximately one entire year.

Similarly, the judge concluded that T.R. “has exhibited no desire to eliminate the harm that has endangered the child's health or development.”   We find ample evidence to support that finding.

The Division provided T.R. with multiple opportunities to participate in programs like FLC and Robin's Nest, and to receive psychiatric testing and treatment.   T.R. only participated in the initial psychological evaluation, visits at I.R.'s home and FLC. He was removed from FLC because of hostile and aggressive behavior, and I.R. terminated the home visits because of T.R.'s outrageous and threatening conduct.   T.R.'s failure to avail himself of other proffered services cannot be attributed to the Division.   Moreover, despite recurring court orders to attend counseling and multiple outreach efforts by the Division caseworker, T.R. never even attended psychiatric services.

Thus, the trial judge's determination that G.B. and T.R. were unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing T.B.I.B. was supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence.

Under the third prong of the best interests standard, the Division must demonstrate that it “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.”  N.J.S.A. 30:4C–15.1(a)(3).

G.B. contends that the Division “failed to provide the structure and support, in the context of G.B.'s specific circumstances, to provide th[e] family with the resources necessary to manage [T.B.I.B.]'s needs.”   She asserts that the psychological and bonding evaluations were “merely litigation tools” employed by the Division, and suggests that the Division should have provided assistance to help her separate from T.R. Finally, G.B. argues that the Division failed to explore alternatives to termination of her rights, such as “the option of kinship legal guardianship.”   We find these arguments to be without merit.

The trial judge found that the Division “provided G.B. with a multitude of services” throughout the time period between T.B.I.B.'s removal and the trial.   The trial judge further concluded that the Division had been diligent in providing those services and accommodated G.B.'s particular needs, such as arranging visits at the nearby Division office instead of the standard location.

Our review of the record reveals sufficient evidence supporting the judge's decision.   The Division offered as evidence, and the trial judge cited, a litany of services that were offered to G.B. These services included psychological and psychiatric evaluation, individual therapy, parenting-skills training, and weekly visitation.   That G.B. did not partake in many of these opportunities is not attributable to the Division, who, time after time, afforded G.B. the chance to reengage with T.B.I.B. Mathes attested to these repeated efforts, and the litigation transcripts and court orders demonstrate that appointments were routinely scheduled, but ultimately avoided by G.B.

We reach the same conclusion with respect to T.R. Both I.R. and Mathes testified about the efforts to include T.R. in the reunification process, as well as T.R.'s inability or unwillingness to avail himself of those programs.   Despite his reluctance to engage with the agency's services, Mathes continued to reach out to him, even visiting T.R. at his home.   Accordingly, we affirm the judge's determination concerning both G.B. and T.R. under prong three.

We turn next to the final prong, which requires the Division to prove “[t]ermination of parental rights will not do more harm than good.”   N.J.S.A. 30:4C–15.1(a)(4).   The fourth prong often poses the most difficult and delicate balance of presented facts.  K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 355.   Under this prong, the question is “whether, after considering and balancing the two relationships, the child will suffer a greater harm from the termination of ties with her natural parents than from the permanent disruption of her relationship with her foster parents.”  Ibid. “[W]here it is shown that the bond with the foster parents is strong and, in comparison, the bond with the natural parent is not as strong, that evidence will satisfy the requirement of N.J.S.A. 30:4C–15.1(a)(4).”  Id. at 363.

Moreover, under the fourth prong, the State should adduce testimony from a “well qualified expert who has had full opportunity to make a comprehensive, objective, and informed evaluation” of the child's relationship with the natural and foster parents.  In re Guardianship of J.C., 129 N.J. 1, 19 (1992).   However, where termination of parental rights is based on parental unfitness, the focus shifts from bonding to the child's need for permanency and the biological parents inability to care for her in the foreseeable future.   N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. B.G.S., 291 N.J.Super. 582, 593 (App.Div.1996).

G.B. argues that the trial judge erred by considering only whether T.B.I.B. had become bonded with I.R. While G.B. concedes that the child is bonded to his grandmother, she claims that fact alone is insufficient to terminate her parental rights.   According to G.B., the judge should not have made a determination on the fourth prong without considering comparative bonding reports of defendants.

T.R. essentially repeats those arguments, but adds that the Division's expert, Dr. Barr, failed to address whether T.B.I.B. would be harmed if his bond with I.R. was severed.   As the record clearly reflects the opposite, there is no merit to that contention.

Here, after balancing T.B.I.B.'s relationships with defendants and I.R., the judge determined that termination of defendants' parental rights would not do more harm to T.B.I.B. than good.   The judge credited the expert's testimony, and, while acknowledging the absence of bonding evaluations for the defendants, found the absence attributable to defendants.

The bonding evaluation conducted in this case agrees that T.B.I.B. is intimately bonded with [I.R.]. Dr. Barr's report indicates that [I.R.] has provided a stable, loving, and nurturing environment for T.B.I.B. in which he has been able to grow and develop at a normal rate.   The report indicates that [I.R.] “unequivocally recognizes and meets her grandson's needs.   Consequently a secure bond exists between them.”   There were not bonding evaluations conducted with G.B. and T.B.I.B. nor were any conducted with T.R. and T.B.I.B., despite the Divisions [sic] efforts in facilitating such evaluations.   This Court squarely places the blame on G.B. and T.R. for not completing those evaluations.

This Court finds that T.B.I.B. is indisputably bonded to [I.R.], and removing him from her home would cause significant emotional trauma, the extent of which is impossible to predict at this point.   Although G.B. testified that T.B.I.B. refers to her as “mom” during visits, the Court does not find that this rises to the level of having a strong bond;  what bond G.B. does have with T.B.I.B. has been made possible by the nurturing home T.B.I.B. has known with [I.R.]. The continuation of this relationship between G.B. and T.B.I.B. will likely continue given [I.R.]'s openness to facilitate a relationship between T.B.I.B. and his biological parents, and the fact that the record reflects that G.B. and [I.R.] have a cordial relationship without any cause for concern.   Conversely, it is unlikely that T.B.I.B. and his biological father T.R. have any bond, as T.R. has not demonstrated compliance with services including visitation, and T.R. has a strained relationship with his mother, [I.R.], as evidenced by his combative behavior toward her on several occasions.

Recognizing the absence of defendants' bonding evaluation, we nevertheless agree with the judge's decision since “in light of the goal of achieving a stable and permanent home for the child, there are ‘limits on the amount of time a parent may have’ ” to meet the conditions of reunification.  N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.R., 405 N.J.Super. 418, 442 (App. Div.2009 (quoting K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 358).   We are satisfied that there is sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the judge's finding.

Based upon our review, we conclude that there is no basis to interfere with the judgment terminating G.B. and T.R.'s parental rights and awarding guardianship of the child to the Division for purposes of his adoption by I.R.

Affirmed.

FOOTNOTES

1.  FN1. A “Dodd” removal refers to a non-judicial emergency removal of a child from the home pursuant to the Dodd Act, N.J.S.A. 9:6–8.21 to –8.82.

2.  FN2. According to Mathes, the Division caseworker, T.R. articulated his desire to visit T.B.I.B. at I.R.'s home, but refused to discuss the issue further after being told it was not possible.

PER CURIAM

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