The rights of individuals who have children to parent is one of the most precious and protected while at the same time vulnerable and subject to termination when state agencies, including the courts are involved.
In November, Robert Epstein blogged on the procedural safeguards that must be in place when custody is at issue. To read more on this blog, click here. In conjunction with that blog entry, the Appellate Division just last week handed down another published decision, which scrutinizes the burden of proof required by DYFS and that must be considered by trial courts when determining whether parental rights are to be terminated.
In DYFS v. M.C. III, In the Matter of M.C. IV and N.C., a father who had custody of his two children after a divorce from their mother was accused of physically abusing the children. The father testified at trial that an argument arose with the children, who were at the time ages 15 and 13, over their use of the Internet. From that argument the father admitted to pulling at his son’s shirt and accidentally falling on his daughter, after his son jumped on his back and pushed him to the ground. On the day in question, the police came to the home twice, neither time reporting any signs of abuse or injuries. Subsequent to the second visit, the children went to an aunt’s home, where they called their mother and took a train to see her. Their mother then brought the children to a nearby hospital and DYFS received a report from the hospital.
At trial, rather than providing live, in-person testimony, DYFS presented as evidence written reports created by the doctor at the hospital, but not part of the hospital’s file. Rather, these reports were written on DYFS intake and procedure forms by DYFS workers, relaying what the doctor had allegedly reported to them. In addition, the DYFS caseworkers who worked on the file did not provide their own live, in-person testimony. Rather, other caseworkers testified as to the contents of reports prepared by other caseworkers. These reports contained statements made by the children, police and hospital staff. Since the caseworkers who prepared the reports themselves nor the doctor were available to testify, the trial judge accepted hearsay and double or even triple hearsay as substantial, credible evidence in finding abuse and neglect on the part of the father and terminating his parental rights.
On appeal, the Appellate Division held that given the serious impact a finding of abuse and neglect has on an individual and family’s life, credible evidence must form the basis for a finding of abuse and neglect. It is incumbent upon DYFS to provide such credible evidence, in conformity with New Jersey statutes, case law, Rules of Court and Rules of Evidence when presenting a case requesting the termination of parental rights. Citing the law set forth in In re Guardianship of Cope, 106 N.J. Super 336 (App. Div. 1969), “it is of great importance that the evidence upon which judgment is based be as reliable as the circumstances permit and..the answering parent be given the fullest possible opportunity to test the reliability of [DYFS]’s essential evidence by cross-examination.” Id. at 343.
As such, the Appellate Division held that the admission of DYFS created documents was “clearly capable of producing an unjust result” because the trial judge relied directly upon that evidence in finding that the children had been abused and neglected. Those documents did not provide a reasonably high degree of reliability as to the facts contained therein. Further, DYFS workers should only be permitted to testify to facts within their own first-hand knowledge of a case.
This case provides further guidance as to the standard of proof and credible evidence that must be presented in a case addressing a request to terminate a parent’s rights.