Woodbridge Child Abuse Lawyers: Leaving a Child in the Car—Is It Neglect or Child Abuse?

New Jersey Court Finds that Parent Failed to Exercise Reasonable Care by Leaving Child in Car

It happens on a regular basis…and you may even have considered it yourself. You have a small errand to run—maybe just in to pick up some dry cleaning, or use a restroom. Your child is in the back seat in the state-mandated child seat, and it feels like it would take more time and effort to remove the child and bring them in than it would to simply leave them in the seat. You lock the car and go in, leaving your child inside the vehicle. Have you just engaged in child neglect or abuse? This was the legal question in a case recently before the New Jersey Supreme Court. The court held that, while not every instance of negligence rises to the level of neglect or abuse, in the case it had before it, the actions of the parent did rise to that level.

The Guidelines for Visitation in New Jersey

Under New Jersey’s statute, the actions of a parent can rise to the level of neglect or abuse if the parent fails to exercise “a minimum degree of care” and the child either suffers or is in imminent danger of suffering physical, mental or emotional injury. In the case considered by the New Jersey Supreme Court, the facts involved a mother who parked her car about 150 feet from a Dollar Tree store. Her child was sleeping in a car seat when the mother arrived at the store, so she left the child in the car, with the doors locked and the windows open about an inch. The car was also running. She was arrested and charged with child endangerment after a security guard called police on her.

The mother was questioned by representatives of the Division of Child Protection and Permanency the same day she was arrested. Officials found evidence that she was remorseful, that her home was well-cared for, that her children were properly dressed and covered by health insurance. However, because of the charge of abuse, the Division was required to include the mother on a list of persons found to have engaged in child abuse. The mother appealed that finding.
According to the Supreme Court, the actions of a parent violate the “minimum degree of care” requirement when they are “grossly or wantonly negligent, but not necessarily intentional.” The court concluded that, where a parent acts in a way that is “grossly or wantonly” negligent, it can support an inference that the child is subject to future danger. However, if a parent is merely careless, there is no such inference. To constitute “gross or wanton negligence,” the act must be one that an ordinary reasonable person would understand as posing a dangerous risk. There must also be evidence that the parent acted with disregard for the potentially serious consequences.

In the case it reviewed, the court found evidence that an ordinary reasonable person would recognize the peril in leaving the child unattended in the car. They concluded that the mother recognized the peril, which led her to lock the car doors and lower the windows. She apparently also acknowledged to caseworkers that she now knew that what she did was wrong.

Contact the New Jersey Child Abuse Lawyers at Lyons & Associates

The New Jersey Child Abuse Lawyers of Lyons & Associates, we represent men and women throughout New Jersey who have unresolved family law matters including child abuse. We place a premium on personalized service and attention. For a private consultation, contact us online or call our office at 908-575-9777.