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 â€“ 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 letâ€™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 â€śproveâ€ť 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 â€ślooks 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.â€ť
He â€ślooks forwardâ€ť 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 â€śgross negligence.â€ť 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 stateâ€™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 Landanteâ€™s glee seems to be that he sees himself as a protector of children from possible tragedy.
Leaving a child alone in a vehicle â€“ even for just a minute â€“ 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 familyâ€™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 â€śdraconianâ€ť nature of placing a parent who â€śslipped upâ€ť 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 â€śwhat if?â€ť 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 stateâ€™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.