When parents become embroiled in a bitter child custody battle, one parent will often accuse the other of being abusive and unfit to care for the child. These charges may be true, of course, but a new custody ruling from New Jersey’s high court–declaring that even a worthy mother can lose her parental rights if she fails to protect her children from an abusive father–will likely make parents think very carefully before lodging these types of accusations.
The case in question, DYFS v. F.M., A-108-10, revolves around issues encountered by Fernanda and Troy (parents and children’s names are fictitious to preserve privacy), a couple who lived in New Jersey’s Ocean County. Fernanda and Troy started dating when she was 14 and he was 25; she had their first child at 17. By no means was life for the family easy. Troy was in and out of prison for years and eventually received a diagnosis of schizo-affective disorder-bipolar type, acute addiction and antisocial personality disorder.
For his child’s safety, New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) stipulated that Troy undergo treatment for drug abuse and mental illness, even providing him with prescription medication. Troy refused treatment; at one point proclaiming himself God and his kingdom coming.
DYFS intervened again and warned Fernanda that Troy was not to have access to the children without DYFS supervision. Eyewitness reports, however, maintain that Fernanda allowed Troy to live in her apartment. Their daughter, Quinn, was removed from the home after a DYFS worker, making an unannounced visit, found Troy alone in a bedroom with the child. The couple’s son, Troy Jr., born not long after, was immediately removed from Fernanda’s custody.
In her custody ruling in the matter, Justice Barry Albin wrote, “The issue before the trial court was not whether [the mother] was an inherently unfit parent incapable of raising a child. Rather, it was whether [she] was capable of protecting her children from their unstable and potentially violent father, who refused to seek appropriate treatment to curb his drug abuse and address his mental illness.”
It was also determined that termination of Fernanda’s rights was warranted under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15 by meeting the following four factors:
1. The parental relationship endangered the health, safety or development of the children because of the mother’s closeness to the father;
2. The mother was unable to provide a safe and stable home:
3. DYFS had made substantial efforts toward re-unification;
4. Termination of parental rights would not do more harm than good.
Granted, Fernanda and Troy’s situation is not the experience of most couples, but there are still some issues here for all of us to consider. When one parent accuses the other of abuse, is he or she able to show all the steps taken to protect the child, such as calling the police, contacting DYFS, removing the child from the immediate situation, or leaving for a safe house? If a temporary order of protection was filed, did the custodial parent willingly violate it? Are parents still living together despite charges or allegations of abuse?
It’s a tragedy for any child to live in a violent, unstable home. In this case, both children were assigned to foster parents who are now lined up to formally adopt them. If Fernanda and Troy could have seen the outcome of their choices — losing all parental rights to their children — would they have chosen differently? It’s not too late to tell.
For more information:
Child Custody in New Jersey: http://www.weinbergerlawgroup.com/Child-and-Parenting-Issues/Child-Custody-Parenting-and-Visitation/Child-Custody.html
How to File a Temporary Restraining Order: http://www.weinbergerlawgroup.com/Domestic-Violence/Help-How-To-DV-Restraining-Order-Process.html
Fit Parent Who Failed To Protect From Unfit One Loses Her Rights: http://www.law.com/jsp/nj/PubArticleNJ.jsp?id=1202567493470