DYFS Defense: Termination by Default

When DYFS becomes involved with a family, the clock starts ticking from the time a child is removed from a parent and placed into DYFS custody.  Parents, oftentimes battling life-long mental health and substance abuse issues, are expected to fix themselves within as little as 15 months or else the State of New Jersey will move to terminate parental rights.  Though the Adoption and Safe Families Act contains strict guidelines for achieving permanency for children caught up in the system, child welfare advocates recognize that parents likely will encounter bumps in the road… Family Courts? Not so much.

In a recent unpublished decision, DYFS v. T.R.R., a trial Court proceeded to terminate parental rights by default against a parent who failed to timely complete a psychological evaluation.  The reason for the parent’s delay?  A medical condition.  The parent supplied her medical records to document the illness, albeit belatedly, in support of her motion to vacate default.  Citing calendar concerns, the Court denied the motion, proceeded to trial and entered a judgment terminating parental rights. The Appellate Division rightfully reversed, relying upon long-established case law viewing with liberality applications to vacate default.  That was not a tough call here.

But, this case highlights a common inequity in DYFS cases.  In T.R.R., the parent was late to participate in a psychological evaluation due to her medical condition.  To the Court, this delay was inexcusable.  Yet, in the same case, DYFS was unable to meet its deadline for a bonding evaluation between the child and the foster parents because the child fell asleep during the evaluation and rescheduling occurred after the deadline.  The Division’s delay was of no moment.  Repeated bites at the apple abound for DYFS.  Parents?  One missed appointment can mean a TPR without their participation.  Do we ever see such rigid enforcement of deadlines inure to the detriment of DYFS?  Should we?

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