NJ High Court Rules That Going to Prison By Itself is Not Reason Enough to Terminate Parental Rights

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By Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann, a Freehold, NJ Law Firm

Going to prison when his daughter was 6 months old until after her sixth birthday was ruled to be insufficient to terminate a father’s parental rights, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled.

The unanimous court said the state’s child protection agency (DYFS) did not adequately rove that the father’s incarceration for 6 years resulted in irreparable harm to his child’s welfare.

Proving once again that judges form an opinion and fit the facts to that opinion, the court found that the father played an “active role in caring for her in the months immediately after her birth and, during his stay in prison, had begun to prepare himself for reintegration into her life”, said the justices.

In a display of true fatherly devotion (sarcasm intended), the father testified he did all of the “normal everyday father stuff” such as feeding the child, changing her diapers and taking her to the doctor for check-ups until she was age 6 months. Before he was locked up, he worked full time in construction and paid the household bills, but then he was convicted of eluding a police officer and was sentenced to prison. (Seems a bit harsh so there must be more to it).

While he was incarcerated, the Division of Youth and Family Services removed the child from the mother’s home because of alcoholism and sent her to live with her maternal grandmother. Eventually, the mother relinquished her parental rights to both children and the grandmother adopted the boy. DYFS moved to have the plaintiff’s parental rights to his daughter terminated so the grandmother could adopt her.

Plaintiff agreed that the child should stay with the grandmother because it was best for her. However, he refused to give up his parental rights. His plan was to gradually increase his role in her life after his release from prison.

The Bergen County Superior Court Judge said the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (formerly DYFS) did not prove by “clear-and-convincing evidence” that his incarceration had erased the bond between him and his daughter and denied DYFS’ application to terminate his parental rights.

DFYS appealed and a two-judge Appellate Division majority overturned the lower court’s ruling.

But get this.

The Supreme Court noted that while in prison, the father was taking courses in anger management, behavior modification, re-entry preparation and parenting. Sounds like all the traits of a good father, doesn’t it?

The court adopted the following additional reasoning. “Although we recognize the legitimate interest of the child in a permanent placement, we conclude that there was substantial evidence to support the trial court’s decision not to terminate appellant’s parental rights because it was still uncertain whether severing a child’s bond with her father would cause her more harm than good.”

So as a consequence of this decision, legal adoption is not possible but neither is a return to the parent likely.

Some outcome.

To discuss your NJ adoption matter, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at fniemann@hnlawfirm.com/. Please ask us about our video conferencing consultations if you are unable to come to our office.


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