We have all heard the stories of a parent leaving a child alone in a car for minutes, or hours, with sometimes grave consequences. Most parents wonder how it is possible to forget a child in a car or feel safe leaving your most precious cargo venerable in a car when you are not there. In this context, DCP&P (the Division of Child Protection and Permanency) becomes involved when a parent is reported to have left a child alone in a car. But, is it child abuse? The answer is now…it depends.
On August 20, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of Department of Children & Families v. E.D.-O. This case began with a parent leaving her 19 month old child in a running, locked vehicle, unattended, for 10 minutes while she went into a shopping center. No harm came to the child during those 10 minutes. However, DCP&P determined that the parent was grossly negligent, otherwise known as child abuse, because she was guilty of leaving a child alone in a car.
The mother appealed DCP&P’s finding of gross negligence and the appellate division affirmed. The case went to the New Jersey Supreme Court, who found that the mother’s conduct was neglect. However, the conduct alone did not constitute gross negligence. Once you have been found to have engaged in child abuse, your name becomes part of a central registry of child abuse offenders. Therefore, the court determined that the standard for a finding of gross negligence is higher and without actual harm, there needs to be a wider evaluation.
Writing for the court, Judge Cuff indicated that “[a]ny allegation of child neglect in which the conduct of the parent or caretaker does not cause actual harm is fact-sensitive and must be resolved on a case-by-case basis.” In essence, the court made it clear that the standard is whether a parent’s conduct presents an imminent risk of harm to the child at the time of the alleged act of negligence (leaving the child in the car in this case). When looking at these types of situations, DCP&P cannot take a categorical approach and must look at the totality of circumstances, not just the parent’s poor decision in not wanting to wake a sleeping toddler while running into a store.
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What does it mean for you? In simple terms, DO NOT EVER LEAVE A YOUNG CHILD IN A CAR, EVEN FOR 10 SECONDS. If you have committed this infraction and are fortunate to not have any negative consequences come to your child, but find yourself receiving visits from DCP&P, you need legal representation immediately.
We can help you navigate the child abuse and neglect laws in light of this Supreme Court decision to ensure the punishment fits the lapse in judgment. If you or anyone you know has any questions regarding this new case or what happens when leaving a child alone in a car, do not hesitate to contact us. Child abuse is serious business and the consequences for you and your family will be difficult. You need an advocate in your corner that can help you through this trying time.
We will not tell you what you want to hear. We will tell you what you need to know!