Mimesis Law
7 June 2020

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: NJ Concern Trolls Mom For Six Years

Aug. 21, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Is leaving a child alone in a car a criminal act? The high court of New Jersey handed down a ruling this week that answered this question in the most lawyerly of ways – it depends. In 2009, a New Jersey mother was arrested after she left her 19 month old daughter asleep in her car while she shopped at a local store for approximately ten minutes (child was asleep, car was left running, and doors were locked, window was cracked and it was 55 degrees outside). Six long years later, the New Jersey Supreme Court has reversed the state Division of Child Protection determination of neglect.

Before a few of you celebrate justice for the mother and the rest of you grab your torches and pitchforks, understand that all this ruling does is delay the inevitable. The only thing the New Jersey Supreme Court did was rule that under the circumstances of this case, the mother, referred to as E.D.-O., could not be held negligent without a hearing.

Basically, after six years of fighting, the last three of which have seen the mother listed on a permanent state registry of child abusers, E.D.-O. has been granted a hearing to determine whether her conduct was grossly negligent or reckless. A hearing that she will almost certainly lose. Hooray justice.

There are many things to unpack here, but let’s begin with the attorneys for both sides. Sean Marotta, the attorney for E.D.-O. had this to say about the ruling:

We look forward to proving at an administrative hearing that E.D.-O.’s one-time lapse in judgment does not warrant labeling her a child-abuser for life.

A reasoned stance for second chances, especially for his client. Whether it is he or the government that must “prove” a case is, at most, a semantical flourish that we can let slide.

The attorney for the state, Ernest Landante, deserves no such leeway. The hard-nosed rule enforcer “looks forward to submitting additional information to support its finding in this case that leaving a 19-month old alone in the car to shop is grossly negligent.”

He “looks forward” to it? For context, the Division of Child Protection investigated E.D.-O. and found that this incident was, even viewed with the jaundiced eye that presupposes it to be heinously wrong, an aberration and that her home, where she lived with her husband and other children, was perfectly safe and quite normal. The state conceded that her admittedly poor parenting (she cried apologetically during her initial interviews with the Division) appeared to be nothing more than a single lapse in judgment.

In spite of the results of their investigation, the Division of Child Protection still found E.D.-O. negligent and placed her on the registry of child abusers (registries are never a bad thing, right?). They made this determination without affording the mother a hearing, finding that the mere act of leaving her child in the car unattended for ten minutes was indisputably negligent.

The New Jersey Supreme Court finally told the Division that while the act is clearly negligence, a hearing must be held to see if the specific circumstances of this case warrant a finding of “gross negligence.” Unfortunately for E.D.-O., she was not a spread-too-thin single mother running into a store to buy formula, diapers or medicine. She was shopping at a Dollar Tree for supplies for a party for another one of her children. This is not a fact that will likely evoke deep sympathy and change the outcome of her case.

But back to the state’s attorney and his vigor for bringing the hammer down on mothers who makes mistakes that cause no actual harm to their children. The source of Landante’s glee seems to be that he sees himself as a protector of children from possible tragedy.

Leaving a child alone in a vehicle – even for just a minute – is a dangerous and risky decision. Left unattended, a child is vulnerable to a host of dangers, including abduction and dehydration.

And raptor attacks and Kevin James movies.

Listen, no one out there is praising the actions of this mother. It was a really stupid thing that she did. After being arrested and having her family’s lives dragged into the state child protection system, she has probably learned her lesson.

But the real tragedy of this incident is that the punishment far outweighs the crime. This is the core failure of child protective systems across the country. They drown a family to make sure a fire, however small, never happens. Life is complicated, especially when it comes to parenting. Laws have been established to protect children from unfit parents, but when the enforcers of those laws see any lapse in judgment as being an open invitation to abductors, it is the children who suffer.

The New Jersey Supreme Court, in its decision, recognized the “draconian” nature of placing a parent who “slipped up” on the permanent registry of child abusers. The Court also specifically called out the amount of time that has passed since the 2009 incident.

Inordinate delay in resolving substantiation appeals also takes on the specter of the absurd when, as in this case, the child was nineteen months old at the time of the underlying event, four years old when the Director finally issued her decision, and will be almost eight years old when the matter is remanded for a hearing before an ALJ.

Assuming that the court-ordered hearing takes place any time soon, the mother of an eight year old will be standing trial for having left that same child in a car unattended for ten minutes when that same child was less than two years old.

The delays and lack of due process within the New Jersey system are not unique to that state. This country is littered with child protective agencies that can easily cause more harm than good. In a system where the safety of the child is paramount, far too often, preventing unlikely catastrophe often leads these agencies to destroy the family structure. Day after day, children are removed from their parents for alleged acts of neglect or abuse. But when caseloads and departmental lethargy takes months, if not years, to determine the difference between an abusive, dangerous parent and one that is either completely innocent or merely imperfect, it is the children who suffer.

These kids are not whisked away from dens of depravity to wonderlands of unicorns and rainbows. They are very often removed from normal homes and either forced to live with a relative or in foster care. These constant upheavals are allowed to occur because the same “what if?” that is a cancer to our criminal justice system places fear before reason in the lives of these families.

New Jersey mother E.D.-O. will get her chance to fight against the state’s finding of neglect, and at this point, six years later, any reasonable person should be rooting for her. However, in the unlikely event that she does win, she has already lost. And thanks to the New Jersey Division of Child Protection, so has her daughter.

13 Comments on this post.

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  • shg
    21 August 2015 at 11:19 am - Reply

    Not to be disagreeable, but the fact that everyone takes for granted that this is neglect and requires apologies and contrition disturbs me. When I was a child, this was the norm. Moms left kids in cars all the time, and yet they didn’t go to jail and we didn’t die.

    Why are we so quick to condemn that as facial neglect? Seems as if a good dose of free range kids would help desensitize those who feel that anything short of bubblewrapping babies is tantamount to a crime.

  • Keith
    21 August 2015 at 12:14 pm - Reply

    I concur with SHG here. When the number one danger to this kid is the kindly neighbor calling the cop, why are we so quick to label this a crime?

    Dangers need statistical probability of harm. Sure, a parent locking a kid in a car on a 90 degree day is dangerous, but this wasn’t that situation and shoehorning it into a “negligence” standard doesn’t actually protect anyone. If you are taking a kid away from a loving and secure home and putting them into foster care, it’s actually the opposite.

    If a possibility of harm existing is enough to cause a finding of neglect, what of the millions of students that walk to school all over the country? Should the mere possibility of getting hit by a car as they cross the street lead to a finding of neglect for every parent?

    When reasonable people disagree, the law should not call an act neglect. And when the norm a few decades ago allowed this (I can’t even count how many time my brothers and I were left in a car), it’s absurd to think it’s suddenly become such a crime that it must be banished because of our nosy neighbors.

  • Ken Womble
    21 August 2015 at 3:52 pm - Reply

    At best, this mom had a frazzled toddler and took her for a ride to get her to fall asleep. That’s all good and well, but her decision to multitask was a bad one, and I stand by calling it negligent. We don’t know the whole story but I cannot see a reasonable excuse including the phrase “and then I walked into the Dollar Tree.”

    Criminal, I agree with you both. No. Should she have gotten a strong talking to, yes. But when the law loses its ability to recognize that there is conduct which is bad but not criminal, then we have problems like this.

    • shg
      21 August 2015 at 4:27 pm - Reply

      Kids. Your grandparents were negligent, if not criminal, a thousand times over. Mine too. And everyone’s. You should have been there to tell all of them how negligent they were.

      • Ken Womble
        21 August 2015 at 4:29 pm - Reply

        I’ll get to that right after I get them to stop being openly racist.

        • shg
          21 August 2015 at 4:38 pm - Reply

          You had openly racist grandparents? That’s horrible. Mine were wonderfully inclusive, but then, my family tree was very diverse.

  • Keith
    21 August 2015 at 5:20 pm - Reply

    At best, this mom had a frazzled toddler and took her for a ride to get her to fall asleep

    No, at best, a parent decided there was no danger and it was better to leave the kid in a car.

    If you want to claim the conduct is “bad”, can you clarify if this is because it makes you “feel” you are seeing something bad? Or is there an objective measure (like statistical likelihood of danger) that you’re using to evaluate this “bad” thing?

    As a parent, of a kid I’d do nearly anything to protect, I fail to see how sitting in the backyard sipping a cocktail while they sleep in their bed for an hour, is objectively safer than letting a kid sleep in a car for 10 minutes on a balmy day with the car running.

    But hey, maybe I’m just not the type of person that wants to live in a society that backs up these laws by having men with guns rip kids from homes when no danger actually happened, just to make us feel safe.

    • shg
      21 August 2015 at 6:00 pm - Reply

      Oh, Keith. Don’t you sucker Ken. I can smell the Lenore Skenazy Free Range Kids statistics coming a mile away.

    • Ken Womble
      21 August 2015 at 6:24 pm - Reply

      Sitting in the backyard sipping a cocktail sounds lovely (nice back yard brag by the way) and is a lot different than if you walked down the street to a neighbors place for 10 minutes. The latter scenario is something you wouldn’t do because it would be “bad.” Would your kid almost certainly be fine either way. Yes. But you still wouldn’t take that chance.

      Leaving a toddler in a car for ten minutes to go into a store is bad. In my opinion. But not nearly as bad as ripping the kids away.

      So I’m glad we agree.

  • Keith
    21 August 2015 at 7:20 pm - Reply

    The latter scenario is something you wouldn’t do because it would be “bad.”… But you still wouldn’t take that chance.

    Sure I would. Because I believe in intellectual consistency. Besides, it takes about that long to walk my dog around the block.

    But there are no “helpful” neighbors when I do that, so it’s ok.

    I’m almost afraid to ask, but at what age do you think it’s ok to let my kids go to the park (located a block behind my house) alone?

    Incidentally, I asked the police chief, school superintendent and Township Manager and the response from all three was that it’s up to the parent to decide.

    Here’s to at least a little bit of sanity.

  • Keith
    21 August 2015 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    Call me the worst Dad in the world if you must.

  • Keith
    21 August 2015 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    Just to clarify, the reason I’m saying it’s not a big deal is because I think it’s important to push back against how our society has internalized this danger everywhere conceptualization which is causing actual harm. I see it in how people react to simple everyday occurrences.

    Scott did a great post on it here: http://blog.simplejustice.us/2014/08/23/the-zebra-of-worst-first-thinking/
    (Here’s hoping links are permitted)

  • Ken Womble
    21 August 2015 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    I hate to agree with a police chief, but it’s definitely up to you. Although I would definitely say older than 19 months.

    I hear what you are saying about the line trending towards troubling areas. I think we are agreeing on almost everything here except whether or not we judge this specific mom’s specific actions negatively.

    The government intrusion, however, is absurd.