Mother found guilty of child neglect or abuse for leaving child in car for a short time while running into a store.

A mother left her 19 month old child in a locked car, windows slightly open, engine running, while she quickly went into a Dollar Tree Store.

The NJ Appellate Division affirmed the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (previously, Division of youth and family services) decision that the incident required the Mother’s inclusion in the Child Abuse registry. The mother had no prior incidents, and by all accounts was a fine, stay at home mother with other children who reported no neglect, and no other neglect was found during the course of the investigation. Her husband described her as a good and caring mother. The incident triggered the State to also seek care and custody of all four children, which was resolved in favor of the family four months later.

That must have been a brutal four months for the family, facing separation and the children’s placement in foster homes? The Mother faced criminal like prosecution, and the family was subject to an arduous process for many years, ultimately having the second highest Court in NJ find culpability.

The Appellate Division decision is here

So, can you quickly run into your house to get your cell phone, while your child remains in a car seat?  Can your 5 year old, or 7 year old, play in the backyard while you go back inside to get an item for your outdoor dinner? As you read through the various scenarios presented in the opinion, what factors must you consider in day to day activities? Note too, a mother who did almost the same thing, but was getting medicine for the child left in the car who was sick, was found to not have violated the law, as it was an emergency.

The Appellate Division stated:

This appeal presents only a legal question: whether the material facts support a finding of abuse or neglect. That question is governed by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4), which states that an “abused or neglected child” means a child under the age of eighteen years:
whose physical, mental, or emotional condition has been impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired as the result of the failure of his parent or guardian . . . to exercise a minimum degree of care . . . (b) in providing the child with proper supervision or guardianship, by unreasonably inflicting or allowing to be inflicted harm, or substantial risk thereof[.]

And: “we need not describe at any length the parade of horribles that could have attended Eleanor’s neglect in concluding, as did the Director, that the act of leaving a child alone in a motor vehicle with its engine running, to enter premises 150 feet away, is a reckless act enveloped by the standard contained in N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b).”

While I do not disagree with the decision as perhaps the only conclusion they could reach, and this was a public location, which is part of the law in certain States, what “parade of horribles” can happen whenever a child is alone, in a bedroom playing, in the back yard or riding their bikes?

Consider during a backyard cookout, you go inside the house for a few minutes, to gather condiments, and a young child is injured outside, and you let the staff at the hospital know, yes I stepped away. Soon after your a defendant, with the State seeking custody? Talk about parade of horribles!

It seems the moral of this story is never leave a child in a car, even to “just” run back inside the house to get a scarf, or cell phone, or book bag, to avoid any possible consequential “parade of horribles,” including the theoretical injuries a child could sustain, and the real threat of prosecution.