UPDATED OCTOBER 2, 2019
Article by Daniel A. Levy, Esq.
A hot topic in the news today is the issue about babies and toddlers who were left in a locked car. Certainly, there are several dangerous things that could happen to a child left in a car, even if the parent is only away for a few minutes. But is it always considered “abuse and neglect” to leave a child in a car? No matter what?
It is an interesting question, especially in light of a very recent New Jersey Supreme Court case, Department of Children and Families v. E.D.-O. This case got a lot of media attention and my personal observations of the media coverage showed that there was a huge difference as to how this case was reported, depending on the biases of the news producer.
The question in that case was the exact question asked at the top of the article. But let’s first start with the facts: Mom was on an errand with her 19-month-old child, who had fallen asleep in the car. It was about 55 degrees outside. Mom parked right in front of a Dollar Tree store, which had a glass store front. She left the car running, including the air conditioning, locked the car, and ran into the store for approximately 5 to 10 minutes. When she returned, nothing bad had happened to the child. But police were at the scene and they arrested her.
The Division of Child Protection and Permanency (formally known as DYFS) launched an investigation into her, her husband, and the family’s 3 other children. They had originally considered removing all of the children from the home. They concluded that Mom had been “grossly negligent” and therefore was guilty of abuse and neglect and was placed on a child abuse registry.
Mom appealed the decision to the courts. Her argument was not that it’s a “good thing” to leave the baby in the car, but that she is at least entitled to a hearing. The trial court and the Appellate Division both concluded that she is not entitled to a hearing because the mere fact that she left the baby in the car is child abuse per se and there is no reason to have a hearing because there was no dispute that the baby was left in the car. However, the Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a hearing is required.
Contrary to what some news anchors reported, the Supreme Court did not say that it’s OK to leave a baby in a car (nor is this article making that claim). But the Court did correctly observe that when one is the subject of a quasi-criminal process “poor judgment” or even “bad parenting” are not necessarily “child abuse and neglect” under the law. Many people will agree that leaving a baby in the car for even a short time on a cool day is a very bad idea. But, as the Court observed, when there is no harm to a child it is important to have a hearing to determine whether the child was abused and neglected.
That is because context and the facts of each case really do matter. Very recently, another case in Hackensack got significant news attention. There, the mother left her baby in a car that was off and the windows were closed. It was about 85 degrees outside. It is unknown exactly how long the mother was away, but this was at Costco and she returned with a cart of items and her older child. Also, the baby was drenched in sweat and received at least some medical attention. The mother in that case was arrested and the case is pending, but the Hackensack case has facts that are completely different from the above Supreme Court case. And there are plenty of other cases like the Hackensack case where the parent was convicted or pled guilty.
What we can take away from this is that the court cannot simply rule that leaving the child alone in the car is a violation of the law, without first having a hearing and evaluating all of the relevant facts. But when the temperature is high, the car is off, and the parent is away for a lengthy period, it is not likely to result in a favorable outcome for the parent.