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Dangers for Leaving Child in Car

February 24, 2014 | Posted In Family Law - Family Law

A mother who left her 19-month-old child in her car while she stopped into a nearby Dollar Tree store has been charged with child abuse and neglect, even though she left the engine running and kept her shopping trip short, family lawyers in New Jersey report. 

In 2009, the mother, known in the court documents as “Eleanor,” left her sleeping child in her car while she ducked into the Dollar Tree store in South Plainfield. She locked the car doors, and left the windows cracked and the engine running while she was gone, leaving the child alone for five to ten minutes. When she came out of the store, police officers were waiting by her car, having been alerted to the situation by a store security guard. The New Jersey Department of Children and Families’ Division of Child Protection and Permanency began an investigation, and found Eleanor to be an unfit mother, accusing her of neglect and abuse. Although the department found no evidence that her other children, ranging in age from 9 to 14, were in danger in her care, Eleanor was charged with abuse. 

According to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4), a parent can be charged with child abuse or neglect if he or she “fails to exercise a minimum degree of care.” Although the statute does not qualify what constitutes this minimum degree of care, family lawyers in New Jersey say that the state Supreme Court’s ruling will offer guidance for future cases. The precedent cited by the court was from G.S. v. DHS, a 1999 case in which the court held that abuse or neglect charges could be substantiated if the parent has acted with “grossly or wantonly negligent but not necessarily intended” actions, or if he or she “fails adequately to supervise the child, or recklessly creates a risk of severe injury to that child.” 

Each year, more than 30 children die after being left alone or without adult supervision in a car, according to a 2008 discussion by the Hawaii legislature. A child’s internal temperature heats up more quickly than that of an adult, leaving young children susceptible to sun poisoning, heat stroke, or even death if left alone. Unattended children can also choke, or become quickly dehydrated. Other dangers include kidnapping, car theft, or vehicle malfunction. Parents who leave their children alone run the risk that any one of these things could happen, even if they are only gone for a few minutes. 

There have been recorded cases in which a parent left a child alone in a car without being charged with abuse, but in Eleanor’s case, the court ruled that by leaving the engine running while she shopped, with her young child inside the car, she had created created an unnecessary but severe risk of danger. Although she did not act with intent to harm or act negligently, the court found her to be negligent, and she will be listed on the New Jersey child abuse registry. The Department of Children and Families had originally tried to remove her children from her custody, they later abandoned that tactic. 

At Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, a New Jersey law firm, our family lawyers represent anyone who has been charged with abuse or neglect of their children. Contact an HCK family lawyer to discuss your case today. 

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