Restraints Imposed in a Title 30 Action for Care and Supervision of Children Must End if the Case is Dismissed

New Jersey Division of Child Protection & Permanency v. J.C., ___ N.J. ___ (2024). Justice Solomon’s unanimous opinion for the Supreme Court today posed the question before the Court this way: “whether a family court judge may dismiss an action for the care and supervision of children brought pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12 but continue restraints on a parent’s conduct.” The Family Part and the Appellate Division both answered “yes.” But the Supreme Court granted review and reversed, applying de novo review to the question of statutory interpretation presented.

Though the detailed facts of the case were important to the parties, they did not significantly affect the result of the legal inquiry that the Supreme Court undertook. What was dispositive, Justice Solomon said, was the plain language of the relevant statute, N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12. The statute enables the Division, “whenever it shall appear” that a parent or guardian is “fail[ing] to ensure the health and safety of the child, or is endangering the welfare of [the] child,” to “effectuate services to children in need when a parent does not consent to the Division’s supervision, care, or custody.”

The statute allows the Division to apply to the Family Part for an order placing the child under the Division’s care, supervision, or custody. When such an application is made, the statute further provides that “[t]he court, at a summary hearing held upon notice to the [D]ivision, and to the parent, parents, guardian, or person having custody and control of the child, if satisfied that the best interests of the child so require, may issue an order as requested, which order shall have the same force and effect as the acceptance of a child for care by the [D]ivision as provided in [N.J.S.A. 30:4C-11]; provided, however, that such order shall not be effective beyond a period of six months from the date of entry unless the court, upon application by the [D]ivision, at a summary hearing held upon notice to the parent, parents, guardian, or person having custody of the child, extends the time of the order.”

The fact that an order allowed by the statute can be effective for only six months, absent an application for an extension, was critical to the Court’s opinion in this case. That time limitation ensures “appropriate court oversight of the Division’s plans for the child” on an ongoing basis. Terminating a case but maintaining restraints such as those here was “inconsistent with the express provisions of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12. A case should be dismissed only when the court determines that neither services nor supervision are required to ensure the child’s health and safety. [Citation]. Thus, if the court finds that the Division established by a preponderance of the evidence that restraints on a parent’s contact with her children is in their best interests, the case should not be dismissed.”

Moreover, in an action under Title 30, a parent has a due process right to counsel. “Functionally, when a Title 30 action is terminated, as was the case here, so too is the right to the appointment of counsel. [Citation]. Therefore, if a case is dismissed with continuing restraints, a parent with appointed counsel, like [the parent in this case], who seeks review in the future would not be entitled to the assistance of counsel to begin that process, unless the parent has the means to hire private counsel to do so. Indeed, the Family Part’s order in this case requires [the parent] to initiate review of the restraints, but the Office of the Public Defender confirmed that they no longer represented [the parent] following dismissal of the action.” For that reason too, Justice Solomon found that termination of the case while leaving restraints in place was improper.

The Court concluded: “In sum, because of a parent’s due process right to counsel in Title 30 proceedings, and the express provisions of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12, we require the Chancery Court, Family Part to keep a case open if it determines that the provision of care, supervision, or services to a parent, parents, or child is in the best interests of the child, or that continuing restraints on a parent’s conduct are necessary to ensure a child’s health and safety.” The case was remanded to the Family Part either to reinstate the Title 30 case or dismiss it without continuing any restraints.