The New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) manages all child abuse and neglect cases and investigates allegations to determine if children are at risk in their homes or other environments. If your family is facing a DYFS investigation, you know that the process can be scary. You shouldn't have to worry that you won't get a fair shake in an investigation or any court action and will have the time and space to appeal. But sometimes, the process can be unfair.
An important case from New Jersey in 1994, New Jersey Div. of Youth and Family Services v. K.M., illustrates how the state can simultaneously prosecute an abuse and neglect action and move to terminate your parental rights, even as you are still appealing an abuse and neglect decision against you. This case demonstrates why getting an experienced New Jersey family law attorney involved is so important from the beginning of a DYFS investigation. You need the skilled Criminal Defense Team at the Lento Law Firm to aggressively protect your parental rights. Call them today at 888-535-3686.
The DYFS Investigation
The appellants in this case, R.M. and K.M., are the parents of three children who were two years, thirteen months, and two months when DYFS first became involved with the family. The oldest child fell out of a second story. Window and was miraculously unharmed, but DYFS discovered "dangerous and filthy" living conditions in the family's apartment. Although the family was financially and physically capable of caring for their kids, they failed to provide the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing.
The parents voluntarily placed their children in foster care, and DYFS assisted them in finding a three-bedroom apartment. However, the baby, born prematurely and had gained little weight because of infrequent feeding, needed to stay in foster care for several additional weeks to stabilize medically. DYFS regularly visited the home, but it was consistently filthy; the children lost weight and were inadequately dressed. The baby's medical condition deteriorated, and he was hospitalized for "failure to thrive, dehydration and malnutrition." Upon his release, DYFS placed him in foster care again. The parents entered an intensive parenting skills class for eight hours a day, five days a week, but home conditions didn't improve. In February 1990, the parents voluntarily placed their children in foster care.
In October 1990, the parents tried reclaiming their kids by revoking their voluntary foster placement agreements. Because the parents had made little progress with their parenting classes and DYFS still believed they were a danger to the children, they initiated an abuse and neglect proceeding against them in court.
The New Jersey Superior Court Cases
In the abuse and neglect proceeding, the court found that the children were abused or neglected by a preponderance of the evidence, holding:
R.M. failed to thrive as a result of improper feedings by the defendants . . . that the emotional condition of all three children was impaired as a result of the parents' failure to exercise a minimum degree of care . . . that [S.W.] suffered from bottle mouth . . . the parents failed to provide proper supervision . . . that R.M. does not have insight into [R.M.'s feeding] problem . . . that defendants failed to exercise a minimum degree of care in supplying their children with adequate food, clothing, medical care, though having means to do so.
The court entered a final order continuing DYFS's custody of the children:
[I]t does not appear that [defendants] have the ability to understand what must be done and the capability to carry forward with that understanding to properly take care of the children on a daily basis.
The parents appealed the abuse and neglect order on October 21, 1991, which went to the Appellate Division in November of 1992, more than a year later, when the children had been in foster care for three years.
However, on October 16, 1991, DYFS initiated an action for guardianship to terminate the parent's parental rights. The action involved a different judge and attorneys from the initial abuse and neglect action. There was a lengthy trial in the termination action that involved much of the same evidence from the earlier abuse and neglect action. The court cited several incidents from the earlier trial, including the fall from the window, the improper feeding, the living conditions, the children's "filthy physical appearance and foul odor," developmental delays, lack of parental nurturing, and the parent's failure to follow up on medical care for the kids. The court stated that the "health and development of all three children [has] been seriously impaired by the parental relationship" and:
these children were exposed to dangerous situations by parents who did not and do not have the ability to anticipate or appreciate situations which pose serious physical and emotional risk to their children.
The parents also hadn't visited the youngest child in nearly three years. The court entered the final order of guardianship in April 1993, and the parents did not appeal, nor did they move to stay the action pending their appeal of the abuse and neglect action.
The Appeal of Abuse & Neglect Action
Meanwhile, the parents' appeal of the abuse and neglect action was pending before another appellate division panel. In June of 1993, the law guardian for the children in the parental termination action informed the panel that another trial court granted DYFS a final order of guardianship terminating parental rights. Four months later, the appellate division issued a decision in the abuse and neglect appeal, finding that the termination action should have been delayed until the appeal in the abuse and neglect matter concluded. The court also ordered the trial court in the abuse and neglect action to:
- Hold a hearing to determine if DYFS could return the children to the parents,
- Order DYFS to provide appropriate services, and
- Suspend further disposition.
The Appellate Division also ordered the trial court in the parental termination matter to "entertain a prompt application to set aside its final termination order." DYFS appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey Appeal
There were two issues on appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court:
- Whether DYFS could bring an action to terminate parental rights while an earlier abuse and neglect action against the same parents is still under appeal and
- Whether the Appellate Division could direct another trial court to vacate its order terminating parental rights while it reviewed an abuse and neglect appeal from the same family.
Actions for abuse and neglect and actions to terminate parental rights happen under different titles, 9 and 3, of New Jersey law, and there is nothing in either statute prohibiting DYFS from bringing a termination proceeding while an abuse and neglect action is still pending. In fact, according to the court, there are some situations when DYFS must bring a Title 30 termination action concurrently to comply with Title 30, and terminating parental rights doesn't require a prior finding of abuse and neglect. DYFS can initiate a proceeding based on several bases, including:
- A finding of abuse or neglect,
- The best interests of the children require a guardianship, or
- A parent's failure to remove or remedy the circumstances that led to placement for more than one year.
In some cases, DYFS must bring an action to terminate parental rights under New Jersey law when an action is in the best interests of the child:
The division shall initiate a petition to terminate parental rights on the grounds of the "best interest of the child" pursuant to [N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15] . . . if the following standards are met:
a. The child's health and development have been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship;
b. 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;
c. The division has made diligent 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
d. Termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good.
Moreover, an action for terminating parental rights has a higher burden of proof than an abuse and neglect action, meaning DYFS has a higher bar to meet. The goals in a Title 30 action also differ from a Title 9 action, with permanence for the children, rather than reunification, as the goal.
As a result, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that DYFS could bring a parallel action to terminate parental rights while a related abuse and neglect action was still under appeal by the parents. The court also held that the Appellate Division erred in reviewing the termination of parental rights when that matter wasn't before it. Its power was limited to reviewing the abuse and neglect appeal before the court.
What does this case mean for New Jersey families? DYFS can bring an action to terminate your parental rights even if you haven't exhausted your appeals in an abuse and neglect action.
You Need an Experienced New Jersey Criminal Defense Team
If your family faces a DYFS investigation in New Jersey, you need to get a lawyer involved right away. The decisions made in an abuse and neglect action can have long-term consequences for your family and even lead to termination of your parental rights. That's why you need the Criminal Defense Team at the Lento Law Firm to protect your rights and your family in New Jersey. Call our team today at 888-535-3686 or schedule your consultation online.