My office has unique experience representing parents whose family’s are involved with DYFS. In many cases, the story unfortunately ends with DYFS petitioning the courts for guardianship of the children at issue. This can result in the sometimes tragic termination of the parents parental rights to their children. The following describes the legal standard which DYFS must meet in such cases.
A parent’s interest in the care, custody and control of her children is a fundamental liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, as well as the New Jersey Constitution. Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390; 43 S.Ct. 625; 67 L. Ed. 1042 (1923); In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 346 (1999).
This right, however, is not absolute and must be “tempered by the State’s parens patriae responsibility to protect the welfare of children . . . . [that] is achieved through the best interests of the child standard.” K.H.O. at 347. The best interests standard was codified in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) and sets forth the four prongs that DYFS must demonstrate before the termination of parental rights is proper.
Specifically, N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) provides that termination of parental rights is only appropriate where DYFS demonstrates, by clear and convincing evidence, that:
- The child’s safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship;
- 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;
- The division 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
- Termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good.
To carry the burden under this statute, DYFS must “demonstrate clearly and convincingly that ‘the child’s best interests will be substantially prejudiced’ if parental rights are not terminated.” In re Guardianship of J.C., 129 N.J. 1, 8 (1992) (quoting In re Guardianship of Cope, 106 N.J. Super. 336, 340-41 (App. Div. 1969)). As such, “strict standards must be satisfied.” In re Adoption by D.M.H., 135 N.J. 473, 481, cert. denied, 513 U.S. 967, 115 S.Ct. 433, 130 L. Ed.2d 345 (1994); accord In re Guardianship of K.L.F., 129 N.J. 32, 37 (1992). “[A]ll doubt must be resolved against termination of parental rights.” K.H.O. at 347.