A woman found to have neglected her 19-month-old daughter by leaving the child in a car while she went shopping will get another chance to argue her case. Last week, the NJ Supreme Court reversed an appeals court ruling that found the woman guilty of child endangerment, saying simply leaving a child alone in a vehicle was not enough to constitute abuse or neglect.
The Supreme Court ordered a new hearing in which all of the case’s circumstances are to be considered. “Any 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,” Judge Mary Catherine Cuff wrote.
The incident took place back in 2009, when the woman, identified by initials E.D.O., left her sleeping daughter strapped in a car seat in her locked car with the engine running and the windows cracked while she shopped at the mall for five to 10 minutes in 55 degree weather. When E.D.O returned, she was arrested by police. The woman said the reason she left her daughter in the car was because she did not want to wake her.
A caseworker then visited the woman’s home, which she shared with her husband and four children, and found no issues. Nevertheless, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency filed a complaint against the woman, seeking supervision of all four children. E.D.O. appealed and requested an administrative hearing, but she was denied.
The Appellate Division held the woman’s actions constituted gross neglect. “A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone in a motor vehicle that is out of the parent’s sight, no matter how briefly,” Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. wrote. The Division of Child Protection then placed the mother on a permanent registry of child abusers.
Fisher cited the risk of “car theft or kidnapping” and the possibility that “on a hot day, the temperature inside a motor vehicle can quickly spike to dangerously high levels…” Fisher’s opinion is not without merit. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 600 children in the United States have died since 1998 after being left in cars.
However, on appeal, the NJ Supreme Court said New Jersey’s laws need to be more flexible, referring E.D.O’s case for further proceedings. From now on, when a child left in a vehicle suffers no harm, the parent/guardian has the right to a hearing to consider all the circumstances, such as temperature, location, and how long the child was left in the car.
E.D.O.’s attorney, Sean Marotta, said “We are pleased the court recognized that not all parenting mistakes are child abuse and that the Division must consider the totality of the circumstances on a case-by-case basis. We look forward to proving … that E.D.O.’s one-time lapse in judgment does not warrant labeling her a child-abuser for life.”
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