Family Law

Leaving toddler in car isn't necessarily child neglect, state supreme court says

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A mother who left her child in a running car for about 10 minutes in 55 degree weather is entitled to a hearing on whether the actions constituted neglect warranting her placement on a child-abuse registry, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled.

The supreme court ruled on Thursday, report the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, and the Associated Press.

The mother, “E.D.O.,” left her sleeping 19-month old daughter in the locked car with the windows cracked while she shopped in a mall in May 2009 for birthday party supplies, according to the New Jersey Supreme Court opinion (PDF). A security guard called police.

The state child protection agency determined the incident constituted neglect, though the child wasn’t harmed and a home visit showed her four children appeared to be well-cared for.

The child-protection agency had sought supervision of the woman’s children, but the petition was dismissed with a consent order. Its neglect determination, however, put the woman’s name on a child-abuse and neglect registry. Records from the registry can be disclosed to physicians, courts, child welfare agencies and certain employers.

A New Jersey appeals court ruled a hearing on the neglect determination was unnecessary because E.D.O.’s actions plainly constituted gross neglect. The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed.

Though the mother’s conduct was negligent, she was entitled to a hearing to determine whether it was grossly negligent, the supreme court said.

“Any allegation of child neglect in which the conduct of the parent or caretaker does not cause actual harm is fact-sensitive and must be resolved on a case-by-case basis,” the supreme court said.

Relevant circumstances include the distance between the woman’s vehicle and the store, her ability to keep the car in view, the length of time the child was unattended, the number of people and vehicles in the area, the ability to gain access to the interior of the car, and the temperature inside and outside the car, the court said.

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