Our family law and divorce law firm’s motto has always been “kids first.” Similarly, New Jersey Family Part courts will always consider the best interest of child paramount to any other consideration. As the focus of our lawyers as well as a judge of a N.J. Family Court is always the best interest of the child. Sadly, there are times that a judge the will order a parent and children to take part in therapeutic supervised visitation before reinstating visitation rights. Unfortunately, many times even therapeutic supervised visitation, facilitated by a professional, is not enough heal the wrongs that may have been committed in the past. In C.H.G. v. G.C.R., mother G.C.R. appealed an order of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Passaic County dated February 10, 2015, that vacated a previously entered order that allowed for therapeutic supervised visitation between her and her two sons, born in January 1999 and November 2001. After review the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the order of the Family Part.
In May 2009, the Division of Youth and Family Services took away custody from G.C.R., and the children have been living with their father, C.H.G., and his wife ever since. The mother still had rights to supervised visitation at this point, but this too was suspended in January 2010. G.C.R. was restricted from having any contact with the children, and both her and the children were ordered to receive therapy. Moreover, the court ordered that visitation could not resume until the children’s therapist gave a recommendation to resume visitation.
G.C.R. filed a motion for visitation in the Family Part of Passaic County, before Judge Sohail Mohammed. After a multi-day plenary hearing, and the judge conducting in camera interviews with the children, the Family Part concluded that an effort to re-establish communication between the children and the mother, was in the best interest of the children. As such, the judge ordered therapeutic supervised visitation, and appointed a provider.
One year later, the Family Part determined that little to no progress was being made from the appointed therapeutic supervised visitation provider. As a result, the order was suspended and the parents were allowed to choose their own experts. Still, four months after that the court found that no progress was made, and appointed a second therapeutic supervised visitation provider. Ten months after that, even the second provider was unsuccessful at making any progress, and the court granted the father’s request for the court to interview the children in person.
During the in person interviews, the older son stated that he was happy living with his father and stepmother, who he called “mom”. The judge noted that the older son just wanted the litigation to end, and that he did not want to let his mother into his life again. He detailed the abuse that the mother inflicted on him, including beating him and then forcing him to hide from the police. He was especially worried that the visitation might turn into overnight visitations, and then into the mother wanting custody. In addition he did not want to even speak to the mother over the phone or by video. The older son stated that he thought his mother had enough chances and had made too many mistakes, and that he no longer wished to have a relationship with her.
The younger son also told of the mothers abuse. Specifically he recounted how she would hit them every day and also throw chairs and even the vacuum cleaner when she was angry. The younger son stated that he did not think she was a good person, and even if she changed, he believed should would eventually go back to her past self. Just like his older brother, he did not wish to talk to her over the phone or even text. He stated that he was happy living with his father and stepmother.
On February 10, 2015, the Family Part entered an order. The judge found both children did not wish to have any contact with their mother at all, because of the mother beating them, lying, forcing them to hide from the police, and that she was never a real mother to them. The children were quite afraid of their mother, and their fear was only heightened because they believed that visitation was just one step that the mother was taking towards getting custody of the children. The judge found that the children were determined and adamant not to re-establish a relationship with their mother, and that there was no evidence that their father was influencing them in any way, because their emotions were much the same as they were in 2002, when the judge first interviewed them. The only difference now was that both children were older, more mature, and had taken on a assertive position. In consideration of these factual findings, the judge determined that continuing the therapeutic supervised visitation would not be in the children’s best interest. In fact, the Family Part found that continued therapeutic supervised visitation would actually be harmful to their interest.
The New Jersey Appellate Division started its opinion by explaining that an appellate court’s review of factual findings done by a Family Part court is limited in scope. Generally, findings made by a Family Part judge are binding on appeal as long as they are supported by substantial, adequate, and credible evidence. Judicial deference to the Family Part is especially appropriate when the available evidence is mostly testimonial and involves questions of credibility. This is because a Family Part court hears the actual case, observes the witnesses in person, and personally hears them testify. As such, the Family Part has a better perspective about the credibility of witnesses than any appellate court. Moreover, Family Part courts have special jurisdiction and expertise in family law matters. Therefore, a reviewing court will only reverse the factual findings of a Family Part court if there is a denial of justice because the conclusions of the Family Part judge were wide of the mark or clearly mistaken.
In New Jersey, it is public policy to ensure that minor children have continuing and frequent contact with both their parents. Denying a parent visitation rights in an extreme, and should only be prescribed in extraordinary cases where it is clear that to grant a parent visitation rights would cause emotional or physical harm to the children, or when the parent is demonstrably unfit.
On appeal, G.C.R. argued that the Family Part terminated her visitation rights without first proving that she was unfit or that therapeutic supervised visitation would cause physical or emotional harm to either child. However, the New Jersey Appellate Division explained that the Family Part court did not terminate her visitations rights, as those rights had already been terminated by an order during the Division of Youth and Family Services litigation which she did not appeal. In actuality, the Family Part tried to reunify the children and mother, but the efforts failed, and the order for reunification was vacated for the time being. The Family Part even stated that reunification could be revisited in the future by motion.
Still, the Family Part found that visitation at this time would cause harm to the children. The Family Part’s opinion detailed the emotional and physical harm that G.C.R. inflicted on her children, and based its factual findings on the judge’s familiarity of the case, having handled it for close to three years. There was substantial evidence for the Family Part to conclude that any contact at that time would cause emotional harm to the children. As such the order of the Family Part was affirmed.
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