Let me preface this article by saying that Howes & Howes does not endorse the idea of leaving a small child unattended in a car. Doing so is not a good idea. It is probably negligent, so do not read this article and think that it is OK to leave your child alone in a car. That being said, the act of leaving a child unattended in a car, while possibly negligent, does not itself constitute child abuse or neglect under New Jersey law.
This is a common fact pattern. A parent is in a hurry. Too many errands; not enough time. To cut corners, the parent leaves a child in the car unattended while he or she runs in to make that last purchase. It is almost inevitable that someone will see the child alone in the car, and report it. The police arrive. They find the parent. They contact DYFS, who is obliged to investigate, and after investigation, usually finds that the parent has committed an act of neglect or abuse under New Jersey law.
That is a major problem because a substantiation places a parent in the DYFS Central Registry. (See our article “Escape from the DYFS Central Registry” on this website.) It is at this point that many law abiding parents contact Howes & Howes. There is good news for those parents because the New Jersey Appellate Division has issued an opinion in which it holds that the act of leaving a child alone in the car does not by itself constitute neglect. (Department of Children and Families v. A.S.)
Under New Jersey law, a parent or guardian must be grossly negligent to be found to have committed an act of child neglect. Whether a parent is grossly negligent will depend on the facts of each case and the history of each parent. For instance, how long was the child alone? Was he or she safe? Was he or she overheated? Did the child require medical attention? Does the parent have a history of good parenting? The answers to these and other questions will help Howes & Howes prepare your defense.
If DYFS has substantiated an allegation of neglect against you, then you have the right to appeal to the Office of Administrative Law. In the Office of Administrative Law, you have the right to an attorney and a full evidential hearing. If this is where you find yourself, then you should contact Howes & Howes.