Tuesday, August 9, 2011

New NJ Supreme Court decision concerning DYFS

An important decision came down yesterday (Aug. 8, 2011) from the Supreme Court concerning what constitutes actual abuse and neglect under N.J.S.A. 9:-6-8.21(c)(4).  This involved a matter where a mother had left her four year old child home asleep believing that her own parents were at home.  Believing that her parents were home since her mother had previously been ill, the parent went out for dinner with a friend.  The child woke up two hours later and saw he was alone, and went across the street to a neighbor's house.  The neighbors contacted the police.
Although a DYFS casworker found that there was no prior involvement of the family with DYFS, and that the case wa a low risk level, DYFS substantiated the mother for inadequate supervision.
An administrative judge found that there was no proof by DYFS that the child had suffered any actual harm or was in imminent danger of harm. DYFS appealed the ALJ's decision and the N.J. Appellate Division found for DYFS that the child faced a substantial "risk of harm." The issue, according to the Supreme Court, was what constituted "minimum degree of care" under New Jersey law under Title 9. The Supreme Court referred to an earlier decision G.S. v. DYFS, which defined minimum degree of care as something more than mere negligence on the one hand and less than an intentional act on the other. The Court held in G.S. that the phrase meant an action that is "grossly or wantonly negligent, but not necessarily intentional."
 The Court went on the describe that while an action that is grossly or wantonly negligent created an inference of a potentially future harm, a merely negligent act did not indicate that a child might be at future risk of harm.
In the case that the Supreme Court reviewed, the mother was found to be merely negligent because she left her child alone reasonably believing her parents were at home.  In fact her mother's car was still in the driveway, and the grandmother had been ill with the flu that week.  The trip that caused the grandparents to leave home was unexpected, and thus out of the ordinary.  Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and found that the mother should not have been listed in the Child Abuse Registry.
This decision comes in the wake of a few other recent decisions by the Supreme Court that has circumscribed the power of DYFS and also have caused the trial courts that handle DYFS cases to be more concerned with protecting the rights of parents involved in DYFS litigation. See for instance, DYFS v. PWR, a decision that rejected that slapping a child constituted severe physical punishment and DYFS v. M.D. concerning protecting and properly advising parents when making fact-finding stipulations in court.

No comments: