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(USA) New Jersey Supreme Court strenghtens family guardianship arrangements

N.J. Supreme Court strenghtens family guardianship arrangements

By Susan K. Livio/Statehouse Bureau February 24, 2010, 6:15PM

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Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger

A 2007 photo of the Justices of the New Jersey Supreme Court hearing arguments in Trenton.

Trenton - The N.J. Supreme Court today strengthened the legal standing of relatives who become legal guardians for mistreated children by ruling that parents must prove they are fit before their children can return to their parents' care.

The number of "Kinship Legal Guardians,'' a legal term to describe people who have physical custody of a child even though parents retain their legal rights, have grown in recent years as an alternative to placing the child with strangers in foster care. Guardianship arrangements also have increased as relatives - especially grandparents - have sought financial assistance to help raise children from an unstable home.

The unanimous opinion written by Justice John Wallace upheld lower court decisions that found a daughter was thriving while living with her aunt, and that her mother, arrested in 2001 for hitting her 12-year-old daughter with a frying pan, had not addressed her anger management issues.

The state Office of the Child Advocate issued a statement praising the decision for putting children's safety and well-being above parental rights.

"The court made it clear that children in families created through kinship legal guardianship have a right to safe, permanent homes with relative caregivers,'' First Assistant Child Advocate Joseph Suozzo said. "This ruling will make it more difficult to disrupt these families, unless parents can present strong proof that it is in the child's best interest to do so.''

"Under the ruling, parents who want to regain custody of children living in court-approved kinship homes must prove by a high legal standard that the circumstances that led to the child's placement with a relative have been addressed,'' Suozzo said. "They must also show the court, by clear and convincing evidence, that dissolving the kinship home is in the child's best interests.''

The courts ruled on 5,682 applications for kinship legal guardianship over the last five years, state Judiciary spokeswoman Winnie Comfort said.

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