New Jersey Courts are required to strictly apply procedural safeguards when a child’s custody is at stake due to the substantial impact that a custody decision has on the parent-child relationship. A review of these safeguards is warranted in light of the Appellate Division’s recent decision in In the Matter of K.S.H., where it reversed a trial court’s custody Order because it found the existence of a genuine dispute requiring the Court to provide the parties’ with prior notice of its intended action to change custody and to conduct an evidentiary hearing on the issue.
A lengthy procedural history preceded the events that are at the core of this discussion involving several attempts by DYFS and a child’s Law Guardian to have physical custody of the child removed from his mother based on allegations of neglect. Ultimately, a trial court in 2007 entered an order directing that the child be removed from the mother and that DYFS be granted physical custody because it deemed the mother to have abrogated her responsibilities as the child’s caretaker and violated related court orders and directives. Of import here was the decision of another trial judge in 2008 to reject DYFS’s permanency plan to terminate parental rights followed by adoption, granted visitation to the grandmother, and ordered that physical custody be returned to the mother all without providing notice to the parties of its intent to change custody. DYFS and the child’s Law Guardian were granted leave to appeal the second trial judge’s findings, arguing that the second trial judge erred by ordering the return of the child to the mother’s custody without having provided prior notice to the parties and without conducting an evidentiary hearing regarding the custody change
In agreeing with DYFS and the Law Guardian, the Appellate Division reiterated the need for a decision involving custody to be based on evidence admitted during a hearing held on the record with all documentary exhibits considered by the court clearly identified for appellate review and with testimonial evidence presented through witnesses who are under oath and subject to cross-examination.
The Appellate Division found that the trial judge violated basic rules of trial practice and failed to provide a complete record for appeal because the order returning custody was premised upon a mere conference between the court, DYFS’s attorney, the Law Guardian, the mother on her own behalf, and an unidentified DYFS caseworker present in the courtroom at the time. There was no competent evidence supporting the decision – no witnesses were identified, no documents were admitted into evidence, there was no attempt to exclude inadmissible hearsay, and the trial court relied upon reports that had not been admitted into evidence. As a result, the order returning custody was vacated and the matter remanded for an evidentiary hearing.
As set forth in another recent post in this Blog, the Appellate Division will not hesitate to reverse and remand a decision of a trial judge made without application of necessary procedural safeguards, including the conducting of a plenary hearing, especially when the custody of a child is at stake.