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Homelessness Does Not Equate to Neglect

May 18, 2014 | Posted In Family Law, Recent News

A homeless parent who files for housing assistance with the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) cannot be charged with neglect of his or her children, family lawyers in New Jersey report. According to a recent ruling by the state appeals court, parents turn to the DCPP for help, and if they are met with accusations and prosecution, children who need shelter and a secure home may be unjustly punished because their parents are afraid to seek help even in desperate scenarios.  

An Essex County judge had previously ruled that a mother, referred to as Lisa, or L.W., in the opinion, had neglected her two children because she failed to provide them with adequate housing, based on her application for housing assistance from a state agency. In 2010, Lisa was arrested after police raided the place she was staying, and found drugs. At that time, her only child, who was less than a year old, was placed in foster care, and returned to Lisa in 2011. Later in 2012, Lisa turned to the DCPP when her housing options became limited, and she had no place to live for herself and her two daughters, now 4 and almost 2. In order to provide her daughters with a home, Lisa signed release forms, consenting to voluntary foster care for the girls. 

When DCPP originally handled Lisa’s case for foster care, they found no evidence of neglect, noting that the two girls were “healthy, safe, and happy…clean, well-fed, and well-clothed.” But later, the agency moved to charge Lisa with neglect, using her application for housing as evidence that she was an unfit parent. In 2013, Lisa told the Superior Court that she and her daughters had traveled to New Jersey for a funeral, but did not have enough money to return to Georgia, where they had been living with her fiancé. 

Lisa was unable to qualify for welfare because she could not work out an adequate child care and work arrangement, and she was not eligible for housing provided by Newark Emergency Services. She turned to DCPP as a last resort so that her daughters would not be on the street. At her hearing, she was charged with neglect for her poor planning. But on appeal, the court overturned the neglect charges, because a homeless parent has the right to seek help from DCPP without retaliation. 

In Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. L.W., the appeals court relied on the public policy of the state, in which the state encourages parents who have little to no options for providing a home for their families to seek a temporary safe placement for their children with the local agencies and family services. Their decision, New Jersey family lawyers say, makes a clear demarcation between homelessness and neglect for desperate parents, and this distinction will hopefully make it easier for parents to do the right thing for their children.

In today’s world, families like Lisa and her girls struggle with finding housing, employment, and keeping everything going from day to day. At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our family lawyers represent parents who need protection from accusations of neglect and abuse. Contact an HCK attorney to discuss your options today.  

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