As a New Jersey family lawyer for over twenty years, I am well aware that when a couple has children the divorce or child custody process can be even more overwhelming and stressful. Not only are the parties of the divorce busy deciding who will have custody over the children, but they also must set a child support amount to be paid each week and develop a parenting time schedule to ensure that the non-custodial parent still has time with the kids. While the parents are the ones physically getting divorced, keep in mind that their children are going through the divorce as well.
As a New Jersey divorce attorney with nearly 20 years experience, I am proud that my NJ divorce and family law firm always protect children in a diligent and zealous manner. The New Jersey family courts value the importance of a parent-child bond. If the courts feel that such bond might be wrongly in jeopardy, they will intervene to make sure that the best interests of the child are always being satisfied.
All too often, this is an upsetting time for children if their parents decide to call it quits, no matter how old the kids may be. They have grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle. They are used to seeing their parents everyday—a close bond has developed since birth. Can you imagine now how the children feel thinking that that bond might be in jeopardy?
Recently, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division intervened in such a case, as it felt that the bond between two children and their father should not be severed due to the surrounding facts and circumstances. The case is S.M. v. K.M., 433 N.J. Super. 552 (App. Div. 2013). Let’s explore.
Plaintiff Steve and defendant Kim were married in 1998. Two children were born of the marriage. On November 18, 2011 the plaintiff was served with a temporary restraining order because he had allegedly pointed a gun at his son’s head and had been abusive to his wife. The police can to the marital home and found that although the plaintiff’s gun was legally registered, the bullets were illegal hollow point bullets. Therefore, the plaintiff was first charged with a weapons offense. Only one month later, the plaintiff filed for divorce. While the defendant had voluntarily dismissed the temporary restraining order, she would nonetheless retain temporary custody of the children and the plaintiff was prohibited from any form of contact with his soon to be ex-wife.
Subsequently, a custody expert was appointed to the case and soon after that, the plaintiff agreed to undergo a drug and alcohol assessment. Three months after the assessment was complete, the Division of Youth and Family Services informed the defendant of its findings, stating that the allegations of abuse and neglect against the plaintiff were substantiated; however, the Division took no further action. Additionally, on June 4, 2012 the custody evaluation was completed and submitted to the court. The report included the following significant facts:
§ Defendant stated that her kids were traumatized and fearful of the plaintiff
§ Defendant and plaintiff had different accounts of plaintiff’s relationship with his children
§ The children talked about their relationship with the plaintiff using the word “we”, hinting to the expert that the children’s perception of the plaintiff might be shared with and influenced by the defendant
§ Plaintiff and his children should be able to develop a positive relationship with one another
§ It is important for the children to see a counselor initially alone, and then together with the plaintiff
Furthermore, the “no contact” condition was to be maintained. In November 2012, the plaintiff was indicted among other things for second-degree endangering the welfare of a child. Every time that the plaintiff insisted he would attend therapy it always led to drinking once again. At this point in was 2013, and the plaintiff had not seen his children in over a year. The family judge denied the plaintiff any contact with his children nonetheless. The court stated that “it was not convinced that granting plaintiff’s request for supervised therapeutic visitation would be in the best interest of the children during the pendency of the criminal proceedings against plaintiff.”
On appeal, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the findings of the lower court. It stressed the importance of a parent-child bond, and demonstrated that by severing such a bond, more harm could actually be done to the children. “Depriving children of all contact with their father is an extreme measure that, if improperly imposed and maintained for a lengthy period of time, could cause severe injury to the children.” The court also looked to past precedent, particularly In re Guardianship of K.H.O, 161 N.J. 337 (1999). The K.H.O. court too stressed the importance of a parent-child bond and stated that a child’s best interests are promoted when both parents are involved with the child, assuring the child of frequent contact with both parents.
As I noted above, these cases are very fact specific. However, ultimately it is extremely important to the New Jersey family courts to preserve parent-child bonds whenever possible, as they truly benefit the child in the long-run. For more questions, please do not hesitate to contact my New Jersey divorce law firm today.