Parents should be cautioned that leaving a child unattended for even short periods of time could be deemed abuse and/or neglect by the Department of Children and Families, Division of Child Protection and Permanency (also known as DCPP, and formerly known as DYFS). In a recent Appellate Division decision, the Court held that a 19 month-old child was abused or neglected when the mother left the child unattended in a parked car while she shopped in a store for five to ten minutes approximately 150 feet away. There was no evidence or allegation that there had been any previous incidents regarding this mother, and all of the mother’s children were appropriately cared for and healthy. As a result, the DCPP investigation was limited to this particular incident. Ultimately, the incident was substantiated, meaning DCPP found that there was abuse or neglect, and the mother was required to register with the child abuse registry.
In upholding the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division found that the mother failed to exercise the minimum degree of care required by New Jersey law by leaving her child unattended in a parked vehicle, even if for only a short period of time. The Court has defined a failure to exercise a minimum degree of care as “grossly or wantonly negligent, but not necessarily intentional” conduct. Simply put a parent must adequately supervise children when aware of a dangerous situation and clearly must avoid creating a dangerous situation. The parent is held to a standard of whether an ordinary person would consider a situation to be dangerous.
The Court did state that certain emergency situations would excuse a parent from a finding of abuse or neglect if he/she leaves a child unattended in a vehicle (or otherwise). However the Court did not clarify every circumstance that would render leaving a child unattended to be acceptable. Would the case have been decided differently if the mother were only in the store for two or three minutes? There is no real clarity for parents other than the cautionary guidance that parents should avoid leaving children unattended in any circumstance. Additionally, if a parent is faced with allegations of abuse or neglect it is important to speak with an experienced attorney. Posted by Robyn E. Ross, Esq.