Civil Liberties

New Jersey Court Gives Mom Who Let Kid Wait in Car a Reprieve from Endangerment Charge

Imperfect parents are not necessarily abusive parents.



What a huge victory for common sense, decent parents, and a country otherwise gripped by worst-first thinking: the New Jersey Supreme Court just ruled that a mom found guilty of child endangerment for letting her sleeping daughter wait in the car for 5-10 minutes in a suburban mall parking lot on a cool day deserved another hearing.

You'll recall the case from when I wrote about it in January of 2014, and then again about a year ago, when the mom lost her appeal:

The toddler slept through the whole "ordeal," but the mom was found guilty of neglect, even upon appeal, when the three appellate judges ruled that they didn't have to list the "parade of horribles" that COULD have happened to the child. Which is, of course, fantasy as policy again: Just because the judges could imagine a kidnapping, or carjacking, or a big bad wolf, doesn't mean that these are at all likely.

I'm happy to say that the New Jersey Supreme agrees. As reports:

In a unanimous 7-0 decision, New Jersey's highest court reversed an appeals court ruling last year that found the woman guilty of child endangerment because even though her daughter wasn't harmed, simply leaving a child alone in a vehicle — even briefly — was enough to constitute abuse or neglect.

The Supreme Court ordered that the woman — identified only by her initials, E.D.-O. — deserves a hearing in which all of the case's circumstances are considered.

"Any allegation of child neglect in which the conduct of the parent or caretaker does not cause actual harm is fact-sensitive and must be resolved on a case-by-case basis," Judge Mary Catherine Cuff wrote for the court.

You mean, instead of treating all parents who opt for a bit of convenience as craven child abusers, we can actually consider reality instead of just outrage? Imagine that!

On second thought—don't. Imagination is what got us into the trouble in the first place. It is very easy to imagine a child dying in a car, because that's what we've been told by endless public service announcements and articles about this supposed danger to kids.

And while it's true that some kids do die in cars, it's also true that more kids die in parking lots. And even more kids die in cars that are moving. If we can keep the small risk of a fatal car crash in perspective and let parents go about their lives, we can do the same for parents who let their kids wait in the car.

In this case, Child Protective Services visited the mom's home and found nothing at all to indicate danger:

But the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency filed a complaint against the woman and her husband, seeking care and supervision of all four of their children.

E.D.-O. appealed and requested an administrative hearing, but she was denied on multiple occasions.

three-judge appellate panel agreed that the woman's actions constituted gross neglect and thus did not require an administrative hearing.

"A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone in a motor vehicle that is out of the parent's sight, no matter how briefly," Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. wrote for the appeals court panel last January.

Fisher cited the risk of "car theft or kidnapping" and the possibility that "on a hot day, the temperature inside a motor vehicle can quickly spike to dangerously high levels, just as it may rapidly and precipitously dip on a cold night."

And let's not forget the giant raptors who could peck through the window and take the child back to their nest.

Huge thanks are in order to the mom's lawyer, Sean Marotta, for making this case:

"We are pleased the court recognized that not all parenting mistakes are child abuse and that the Division must consider the totality of the circumstances on a case-by-case basis," said [Sean] Marotta, an attorney with Hogan Lovells, who was co-counsel in the case with the Epstein Arlen law firm in Somerset. "We look forward to proving at an administrative hearing that E.D.-O.'s one-time lapse in judgment does not warrant labeling her a child-abuser for life."

 While I don't believe the mom's decision was a mistake or a lapse in judgement—it was a rational decision by a loving mom, and one that most of our own loving moms made—I do agree with the larger point: all one-off mistakes should not be the basis for taking kids away. Kids do not need perfection, which is a good thing, since there is no such thing as a perfect parent.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that imperfect parents are not automatically child abusers. All hail New Jersey! (Words this New Yorker never expected to write.)