Department of Children & Families v. E.D.-O., 434 N.J. Super. 154 (App. Div. 2014). Appellant “Eleanor” admitted that she had parked her car about 150 feet from a Dollar Tree store in South Plainfield, left her sleeping nineteen-month old child in her carseat and, with the engine running, the doors locked, and the windows cracked about an inch, went to buy party supplies. Eleanor returned five or ten minutes later to find police waiting for her. She was arrested and charged with child endangerment. The Department of Children and Families (formerly, DYFS) got involved, and the Director of the Division found abuse or neglect by Eleanor under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b). Eleanor appealed, but the Appellate Division affirmed in an opinion by Judge Fisher.
Judge Fisher first rejected Eleanor’s argument that she should have received an evidentiary hearing. Eleanor did not dispute the facts, so “the Director properly applied the procedure outlined in N.J.A.C. 1:1-12.5(b), which tracks Rule 4:46-2(c)’s method for summarily resolving factually undisputed civil actions.”
N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4) (b) states that an “abused or neglected child” is one “whose physical, mental, or emotional condition has been impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired as the result of the failure of his parent or guardian … to exercise a minimum degree of care … (b) in providing the child with proper supervision or guardianship, by unreasonably inflicting or allowing to be inflicted harm, or substantial risk thereof.” Though there is no statutory definition of “minimum degree of care,” the Supreme Court stated in G.S. v. Dep’t of Human Servs., 157 N.J. 161, 178 (1999), that gross negligence or recklessness (but not ordinary negligence) was the test.
After discussing several other cases that had applied the relevant test, Judge Fisher had no difficulty in agreeing with the Director that “the act of leaving a child alone in a motor vehicle with its engine running, to enter a store 150 feet away, is a reckless act” that falls within the statute. He noted that “[m]any states have criminalized the same conduct, although without any uniformity in approach.” Eleanor had “recognized the danger [to her child] when she felt it necessary to lock the vehicle’s doors and lower both front windows by an inch.” She also admitted to the Division’s caseworker at the time that “she now knew that what she did was wrong.”
Eleanor relied heavily on an unreported case in which a mother, whose husband was out of town, left her two year-old in a locked and warm car for ten minutes so the mother could buy medication for the child. Judge Fisher found that case inapplicable. “[T]he child here was not sick, Eleanor was only purchasing items for a party, and other adults were available to watch the child at home while Eleanor ran her errand.”
Judge Fisher cautioned that the panel’s decision did not mean that “there are no circumstances in which a child might be left unattended in a motor vehicle without running afoul of” the abuse and neglect statute. This fact pattern apparently happens often, as demonstrated by the fact that the parties cited six fairly recent Appellate Division decisions involving children left alone in motor vehicles. These cases are “quite fact sensitive.” In some circumstances, Judge Fisher said, such conduct might be “merely negligent.” Today’s case, however, was not such an instance.