A recent New Jersey Appellate Decision (Department of Children and Families, Division of Child Protection and Permanency (formerly DYFS) v. E.D.-O. (Unpublished, App. Div. 2014, A-3825-12T4), held that leaving a child unattended in a car for even a short period of time (such as a minute) may constitute “abuse or neglect.”  So, the next time you think it’s no big deal to simply: “run into Wawa to grab a quick drink and leave a young child in the car,” be forewarned that there can be serious consequences to that action.

I personally find myself somewhat conflicted about this decision.  I know my own parents would, occasionally (and not unlike many parents of that generation) leave my sister and me alone in a car for a minute or two while they ran a quick errand.  At the same time, now that I am a parent, I can understand why that action could be questioned.  I imagine a lot of this will depend on the circumstances of the case, and indeed such cases are rather rare.

The facts of the above case, according to the unpublished opinion, are as follows:

“O. (Eleanor, a fictitious name) acknowledges that late in the morning of May 6, 2009, she parked her car approximately 150 feet from the front door of a Dollar Tree store in South Plainfield; left her sleeping nineteen-month-old child belted into her car seat in the vehicle; and kept the engine running and the doors locked with windows opened approximately one inch while she entered the store. Five to ten minutes later, Eleanor exited the store to find, by her car, police officers called by a mall security guard, who had observed the unattended child. Eleanor was arrested, charged with child endangerment and released on her own recognizance.”

According to the Court’s opinion, this appeared to be an “isolated incident.”  DYFS’ investigation did not demonstrate that the children were not cared for, that they were regularly placed in danger, or that “Eleanor” was generally an unfit parent.  Accordingly, the underlying incident became the incident in this case.

The Appellate Court, nevertheless, found that: “A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone in a motor vehicle that is out of the parent’s sight, no matter how briefly.”

The Court noted that the child—particularly a child not yet two years of age— could have been abducted, injured by heat or other elements, or otherwise imperiled by being left in the automobile.  The Court noted a distinction from another case—where a child was sick and the parent left the child in the car for a few minutes so that she could obtain medicine—as the child in the current case was not ill, but rather the parent was attempting to purchase items for a future party.

In sum, the Court upheld DYFS’ finding that the parent was “grossly negligent.”

To be sure, no parent wishes to be judged on their “worst moment.”  There may be those who believe this case “went over the line.”  There are surely just as many people, if not more, who feel that the parent was entirely at fault.  It’s important, however, for all of us (not just those of us who are family lawyers), to be knowledgeable of changing social mores, so that we can be certain we are acting appropriately.  What is common practice at one point in time, may be completely inappropriate at another.  Social mores, like the law, are always shifting.  This case is interesting because it provides a litmus test—a line of demarcation—–and an important message for anyone who is a parent or cares for the child of another.

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