An Appellate Court decision that has sparked heated debate among parents and non-parents alike will soon be the subject of review by our State’s highest Court, the New Jersey Supreme Court.   The case, involving parental rights and responsibilities under State law, arose after a mother left her one-year-old child in a running, locked vehicle while she ran into a Dollar Tree store to purchase some party supplies. 

For some people, the idea of leaving a child alone in a motor vehicle for a short period of time may seem perfectly reasonable. Others may be horrified by the prospect, while still others may believe that the appropriateness of that conduct should be decided on a case-by-case basis.  Let’s see how the Justices of the Appellate Division (the second tier of our three-tiered state court system) analyzed the issues.

 The facts of the case, Department of Children & Families v. E.D.-O., 434 N.J. Super. 154 (App. Div. 2014), are fairly straightforward.   In May of 2009, “E,” the parent of a nineteen-month-old child, parked her car approximately 150 feet from the front door of a Dollar Tree store in South Plainfield.  While her sleeping child was belted into her car seat, the parent entered the Dollar Tree store and did her shopping.  She had left the car engine running, the windows cracked open about an inch and the car doors locked.  Five to ten minutes later, the parent exited the store and was greeted by police officers who had been called to the location by a mall security guard.  “E” was arrested, charged with child endangerment and released on her own recognizance.

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The Division of Youth and Family Services, now known as the Division of Child Protection and Permanency investigated.  “E” was tearful and expressed remorse.  Her spouse was interviewed, as described her as a "good and caring mother."  Inspection of the family home revealed that all of the children in the household were well cared for and healthy.  Two of the older three children said their mother, who was not employed outside the home, had never left them alone. The home was free of safety hazards.  

Based upon the single incident at the Dollar Tree location, the Division found that the charge against E had been substantiated, thereby triggering the requirement that her name be added to the child abuse registry pursuant to the N.J. Administrative Code. The names contained in the registry are available to certain employers when conducting an employment background check.

The relevant statute at issue in the case, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4), states that  a parent commits abuse or neglect if he or she failed to exercise a "minimum degree of care."  The statute does not define the minimum standard of care, but an earlier Supreme Court case held that abuse or neglect may occur where  there is "grossly or wantonly negligent but not necessarily intended" conduct, or if the parent "fails adequately to supervise the child or recklessly creates a risk of severe injury to that child."

The Appellate Court agreed with the Division’s determination that the mother had acted recklessly and therefore violated the law.  Important to the Court’s determination were several facts.  First, the mother admitted to the caseworker that she knew that shat she had done was wrong.  Second, the Court relied upon the fact that the parent had locked the car doors and cracked open the windows as evidence that the parent recognized the danger to her child.  Finally, there was evidence that other adults could have been called upon to watch the child while the mother ran her errand. 

Interestingly, the Court rejected any parallel between the facts of this case and the facts of another case involving a young child left in a locked vehicle for ten minutes in which the parent had not been found to have acted recklessly.  In that case, a parent left her two year-old in a locked, warm car for ten minutes while she went into a store to purchase medication for the child.  The child’s father was out of town at the time. 

Concluding, the Appellate Division emphasized that its decision did not imply that abuse will always be found when a child is left unattended in a vehicle.  Cases such as these, the Court said, are “apparently not as uncommon as might be hoped” and are “quite fact sensitive.”   Determining whether a finding of abuse stands up to judicial scrutiny depends upon the totality of the circumstances and is analyzed in light of the dangers and risks associated with the particular situation. 

Linda Kern is a Randolph resident who is in private practice in Morristown. She is admitted to the New York and New Jersey bars and has litigated in both state and federal courts.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.