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New Jersey Family Lawyers Discuss Doctor-Patient Privilege in Abuse Situations

February 22, 2013 | Posted In Family Law - Child Abuse

In a move that reversed a previous court decision about child abuse and physician responsibility, a New Jersey appeals panel presented the case of a two-year-old girl whose adoptive mother was suing the child's emergency room doctor for failing to report a suspicion of abuse. New Jersey family attorneys say that the pending decision will provide specific guidelines for doctors who treat potentially abused children, in terms of what they must report to the police and the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS).

The plaintiff, Linda, had attempted to bring charges against the doctor who cared for her adoptive daughter during an emergency room visit when the child, referred to as Sally in the panel's presentation, was two years old. At the time that her biological father had custody, Sally was taken to the ER by several relatives, because she had been vomiting and walking unsteadily. Her father presented a bottle of cologne, the contents of which he believed Sally had swallowed. Doctor Daniel Yu, who examined Sally, concluded, based on the girl's blood-alcohol level of 0.035 percent and the physical signs of intoxication, that she had consumed the cologne, and sent Sally and her father home. Dr. Yu did not report the incident to DYFS, and it was only when Sally was later removed from her father's care and adopted by Linda that the ER trip came to DYFS's attention. She tried to sue Yu for medical malpractice and for breaching appropriate standards of care during Sally's hospitalization.

In an earlier ruling dismissing charges against Dr. Yu, New Jersey family attorneys presented legislation that set forth Yu's responsibility as a doctor to report suspected child abuse. The language that defines this responsibility outlines a physician's suspicion of "gross or wanton neglect," and states that proving such a standard from an emergency room visit such as Sally's is difficult. But in her appeal, Linda pointed out that Sally consumed cologne as a result of her father's parental neglect, which should have been apparent to Yu during his examination of the child.

Based on Linda's appeal, New Jersey courts have ordered further proceedings for the lawsuit, and New Jersey family lawyers will be paying close attention to the outcome. Pediatricians and ER doctors who treat children have a special duty to report suspected abuse, but such reports can sometimes lead to false accusations and charges that ruin families. The NJ family attorneys at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA represent parents and guardians suspected of child abuse, and offer legal counsel in family law matters.

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