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Leaving A Child Unattended In A Car: Is That Child Abuse?

October 29, 2014 | Posted In Family Law

A New Jersey mom who left her 19-month old daughter asleep in a car while she ran into the party store is finally facing the state Supreme Court after an appellate court found her guilty of abuse and neglect, family lawyers in New Jersey say.

The stay-at-home mother of four, identified in court papers as "Eleanor," was only in the store for 5 to 10 minutes, and her child was strapped in and sleeping the entire time.  However, when police arrived on the scene, they ultimately arrested her for leaving the baby unattended. Although this happened back in 2009, the state Supreme Court will be hearing arguments from both sides to determine whether leaving a sleeping toddler in a car for less than 10 minutes is truly considered an abusive or neglectful act. The decision will have an impact on Eleanor’s case, and, depending on the court's ruling, she could finally lose the stigma of being charged with child abuse. 

Why is the State Supreme Court Getting Involved?

Originally, Eleanor was facing child endangerment charges and requested a hearing with the state’s Department of Child and Family Services. The Department refused, however, saying that there was nothing to discuss in her case — child abandonment had occurred by way of Eleanor’s act of leaving the child in the car. The appellate judges agreed and charged her with abuse and neglect.

According to New Jersey's laws on child abuse, a parent or guardian must exhibit a “minimum degree of care” and avoid placing children in situations or circumstances that could bring them harm, or could damage their “physical, mental, or emotional condition.” Parents are found to be abusive or neglectful when they recognize the potential danger in a situation, but “fail adequately to supervise the child, or recklessly create a risk of serious injury to that child.” Any child under the age of 18 is protected by these laws, family lawyers in New Jersey say.  

The appellate court’s ruling has been applied in many subsequent car abandonment cases across the board because the ruling does not stipulate at what age a child is old enough to be left alone in the car while the parent runs a brief errand. The appellate judges also did not give a timeframe for how long is too long to be left alone in the car. However, many judges said that setting an age or time limit would cause confusion and contention in future cases, and that the emphasis should be on the substantial risk of harm — the most severe of which include dehydration or abduction — which could happen in any time frame.  

The state Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Eleanor could have bearing on future determinations of abuse or neglect for parents who may leave their kids in the car for short errands or quick pit stops without thinking that doing so could ultimately be deemed an act of child abuse. At Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, a New Jersey firm, our family lawyers represent parents who have been accused of child abuse or neglect, especially in cases where there may be room for leeway or interpretation. For a consultation regarding your case, or to discuss a previous conviction that you would like to appeal, contact an HCK family attorney today. 

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