Pursuant to New Jersey Law, a finding that a parent or guardian committed child abuse or neglect results in the abuser's name being placed on the Department of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) Child Abuse Registry. A listing on the Registry can have negative consequences on future employment, and also may preclude recreational involvement with kids such as serving as a coach. Two recent New Jersey Supreme Court decisions have refined the definition of "child abuse" and "neglect" in the State, and have limited the circumstances in which a parent may be placed on the Child Abuse Registry.
In DYFS vs.T.B., 2011 WL 3425666 (NJ Sup. Ct. 2011), the Supreme Court held that a mother who accidentally left her four year old child unsupervised for two hours, believing that the child's grandmother was home, did not "neglect" the child and deserve to be on the Registry. More specifically, the mother and child lived with the child's grandparents. The mother and child lived in the downstairs portion of a ranch-style home, and the grandparents lived upstairs and frequently supervised the child. One Sunday evening, the mother and child were returning home from visiting family when the child fell asleep in the car. Upon arriving home, the mother saw the grandmother's car in the driveway and assumed the grandmother was at home (according to the mother and grandmother, the grandmother was "always" home on Sunday evenings). The mother put the child to bed and went out to dinner with a friend. However, the grandmother was not home that evening, and the child panicked when he woke up without any adult supervision. He crossed the street and went to a neighbor's house, who called the police. The mother returned home between 9:30pm and 10:00pm, found the police at her house, and was transported (but not arrested) to the police station to make a statement.
Therafter, DYFS conducted an investigation, and held that the mother neglected the child by failing to adequately supervise him. The Appellate Division affirmed, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision, holding that a parent only commits child neglect if he/she fails to exercise a minimum degree of care in supervising the child, which requires conduct that is grossly negligent or reckless to constitute neglect or abuse. In this case, the Court held that the mother was plainly negligent, but not grossly negligent, when she left her child unsupervised for two hours because she mistakenly thought the grandmother was home. While the mother obviously should have checked to see if the grandmother was home, her conduct did not constitute child neglect. As a result, the holding was reversed and the mother's name was removed from the DYFS Child Abuse Registry.
Similarly, in DYFS v. P.W.R., 205 NJ 17 (2011), the Supreme Court held that a child's father and stepmother, although by no means stellar parents, did not abuse and neglect their sixteen-year old daughter. The child told her grandfather that her stepmother was "slapping her around" and taking money she earned working at a fast-food establishment. The grandfather called DYFS, which conducted an investigation. DYFS removed the child from the home immediately because there was no central heat in the home, the child had not been to the pediatrician in two years, the father admitted that the step-mother had slapped the child in the face and taken some of her earnings for cable bills, and the parents restricted the child's ability to see her grandfather. A hearing was held at Superior Court, Family Part, to determine whether removal of the child from the home was appropriate, and the Family Part held that DYFS had proven its allegations of abuse and neglect and removal was appropriate. The Appellate Division affirmed.
However, the Supreme Court reversed the decision, holding that the actions of the father and stepmother did not fall below the minimum degree of care required by the Statute. Specifically, the court held that occasionally slapping the teenager in the face as a form of discipline, which did not result in bruises, scars, lacerations, fractures, or any other medical ailment, did not constitute "excessive" corporal punshment: it was not "neglect or abuse", even though there was no central heat in the home, as the parents could not afford to have it fixed and they were using space heaters instead: requiring the working age child to contribute to support the family was not a reason for DYFS to remove the child from the home: there was no evidence that the child was in imminent danger because she had not seen a pediatrician in two years; and the parents had the right to restrict the child's visitation with her grandfather. Accordingly, the Court reversed the lower court's decision that the parent abused and neglected the child.
In sum, the definition of child abuse and neglect in this State has recently been clarified by the Supreme Court. The conduct described above, while unfortunate, did not constitute abuse and neglect, and makes clear that the Supreme Court will require that improper conduct towards a minor must be intentional and significant before a parent's placement on the DYFS "child abuse" registry will be permitted.