All parents have a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and supervision of their children. In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 346 (1999); (citing Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 1212, 31 L.Ed.2d 551, 558-59 (1972)). There is an overriding principal that “clearly favors keeping children with their natural parents.” In re Guardianship of J.C., 129 N.J. 1, 7–8 (1992). Presumably, “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children.” 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries; 2 J. Kent, Commentaries on American Law. However, parents who abuse or neglect their children, act against the best interest of their children. Under such circumstance, the State must exercise its “parens patriae responsibility to protect the welfare of children.” K.H.O. at 347.
Termination of parental rights is recognized as “among the most ‘severe and . . . irreversible’ forms of state action.” N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. E.P., supra, 196 N.J. at 102 (quoting Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 759, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 1398, 71 L.Ed.2d 599, 610 (1982); see also In re Adoption by J.J.P., 175 N.J. Super. 420, 426 (App. Div. 1980). The State must adhere to “strict standards” in order to terminate parental rights. In re Guardianship of K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 346. “All doubt must be resolved against termination of parental rights.” K.H.O. at 347.
To balance the State’s parens patriae responsibility with the parents’ constitutionally protected liberty interest, the Legislature adopted the best interests of the child standard in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). “The best interests of the child standard requires a showing of very substantial and continuing or recurrent abuse or neglect that endangers the child’s health and development.” It involves an integrated multi-element test applied to determine whether termination of parental rights is in the best interests of the child. See K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. 337 (1999). Pursuant to the best-interest standard, to terminate parental rights, the Division has to show, by clear and convincing evidence, that:
(1) The child’s safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship;
(2) The parent is unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing the child or is unable or unwilling to provide a safe and stable home for the child and the delay of permanent placement will add to the harm. Such harm may include evidence that separating the child from his resource family parents would cause serious and enduring emotional or psychological harm to the child;
(3) The [D]ivision has made reasonable efforts to provide services to help the parent correct the circumstances which led to the child’s placement outside the home and the court has considered alternatives to termination of parental rights; and
(4) Termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good.
[N.J.S.A. § 30:4C-15.1(a); New Jersey Div. of Youth and Family Services v. M.M., supra, 189 N.J. at 279-280; N.J. Div. of Youth & Fam. Servs. v. P.P., 180 N.J. 494, 511(2004)].
“[T]hose four prongs are not ‘discrete and separate,’ but ‘relate to and overlap with one another to provide a comprehensive standard that identifies a child’s best interests.’“ N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. G.L., 191 N.J. 596, 606–07 (2007) (quoting In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 348 (1999). In any event, the Division must still prove each and every element by clear and convincing evidence. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. F.M., 375 N.J. Super. 235, 259 (App. Div. 2005).
Clear and convincing evidence “‘produce[s] in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established.’” Matter of Seaman, 133 N.J. 67, 74 (1993); accord Matter of Purrazella, 134 N.J. 228, 240 (1993). Clear and convincing evidence is “‘so clear, direct and weighty and convincing as to enable [the factfinder] to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the precise facts in issue.’” Seaman at 74 (emphasis added).