For the first time in this appeal, the biological mother of a five-year-old child argues the judgment of guardianship, which terminated her parental rights, must be vacated and the case remanded for a new trial because the resource parent, with whom the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) placed the child, worked as a domestic violence liaison in the district office that was responsible to investigate and manage this case from its inception. At oral argument, this court requested supplemental briefs from the parties exclusively on this issue.
This court holds the DCPP violated the Conflict of Interest Law, N.J.S.A. 52:13D-12 to -27, and the ethical standards and protocols promulgated by the Department of Children and Families in its Policy Manual when it failed to transfer this case to another regional office based on the resource parent's assignment as a domestic violence liaison. The Division's failure to take timely and effective action to address this material conflict of interest tainted the management of this case from its incepti.
Independent of this ethical transgression, the Family Part judge who presided over this trial did not: (1) make credibility findings regarding the biological mother's testimony, (2) identify which of the two psychologists who testified as expert witnesses he found more persuasive, or (3) incorporate the opinions offered by the experts in his analysis of the four statutory prongs in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). This court remands this matter for the judge to conduct a plenary hearing to determine whether reunification with her biological mother is in the child's best interest at this stage of her emotional, psychological, and cognitive development. The judge must assess what psychological and/or emotional harm the child may suffer if she were to be removed from the custody of the resource parent and returned to the physical custody of her biological mother.
Finally, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 52:13D-21(h), this court directs the Appellate Division Clerk's Office to forward a copy of this opinion to the State Ethics Commission Office