Heightened Burden to Terminate Parental Rights of a Teen Parent

The New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division has provided trial Courts with guidance vis-a-vis an analytical framework to evaluate the State’s efforts to terminate the parental rights of a teen parent. In the New Jersey Div. of Youth and Fam. Svcs. v. L.J.D., the Court established a “heightened burden” for guardianship matters involving teens. This “special circumstance” of teen parenthood requires “services to aid the development of the child-parent’s maturation” and likely necessitates extending reunification efforts beyond the twelve-month timeframe mandated by N.J.S.A. 30:4D-61.2(a) and N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.54(b). These are important guideposts to evaluate future TPR cases involving teen parents.

This 55-page Decision, authored by Judge Lihotz, raises many questions, not the least of which is the appropriateness of “services” offered by the agency to parents from whom children have been removed. In this case, the parent argued that services were not appropriate because the Division did not provide one last service – a Mommy & Me program – that may have been sufficient. The Court rejected this argument – not based upon the program proposed, but based upon the volume of “services” that otherwise were not utilized effectively by the parent.

This demonstrates the need for parent-advocates to oppose the routine referrals made for services when those services are not likely to benefit the parent and child. Services should not be rejected out of hand; however, if the only conceivable benefit to a parent in a particular service is to aid the Division is increasing its list of “services” offered to meet its “reasonable efforts” mandate, the service should be opposed.

Each offered “service” should be evaluated. Ask for Resumes of Service Providers. Request detailed information about the program guidelines. If the program is geared toward substance abuse, and the parent’s primary issue is psychological disorder, oppose this service being required of the parent. Or, at the very least, oppose the service being included in the list of the Division’s “reasonable efforts” to reunify. In all litigation, cases are won and lost on the details. Child welfare cases are no different. Make your record in these cases by holding the Division to its burden – whether it be the “usual” burden or the heightened burden of L.J.D.

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