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Court Reverses Finding of Neglect that Widowed Mother Willfully Abandoned Twin Daughters

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Earlier this month, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division reversed a lower court’s ruling that a mother was guilty of neglect. Although the situation which transpired was far from ideal, and clearly the mother needed help at the time, the facts simply did not support a finding that she willfully abandoned her children.

This case involves a single mother (father is deceased) raising two twin girls. Mother and both daughters all have histories of mental health issues and hospitalizations. Although the mother does have a long case history with the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (CP&P), there have never been any substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect prior to the incident in this case.

The incident at hand occurred when the mother arrived over an hour late to pick up one of her daughters from a treatment session at St. Clare’s hospital (she was late after being held up at ¬†another facility across town where her other daughter was being treated). The mother was very distressed and upset and said that she could not take her daughter home. About an hour later, the mother was ready to leave, but hospital staff would not let her leave with her daughter due to her mental state. The mother refused any psychiatric intervention and left without her daughter, telling staff they could “keep” the girl.

CP&P sought an emergency removal of the daughter and later filed a complaint seeking custody of both children. The Division continued to keep both girls, allowing limited supervised visitation by the mother. At the hearing, the judge found that the mother had neglected her daughters by abandoning them. The mother appealed, arguing that the hearing judge’s finding of abandonment was not supported by the facts in the case or the applicable law. The New Jersey appellate court agreed and reversed the order of the trial judge in the case of New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. MH.

The safety of the children is the paramount concern in cases of alleged child abuse or neglect, which can include willful abandonment. Under New Jersey law, abandonment can mean any of the following:

  • Willfully forsaking a child
  • Failing to keep the child from being exposed to physical or moral risk
  • Failing to care for the child so that the child must be cared for at public expense or by child caring societies or others not legally chargeable with the child’s care

Abandonment includes any conduct on the part of the parent which shows a settled purpose to forego all parental duties and relinquish all parental claims to the child. Basically, abandonment means willfully forsaking one’s parental responsibilities.

In the case at hand, clearly mom had a stressful, difficult day, and she was clearly unable to cope with handling her daughter at the time. However, both children were under the care of medical professionals at the time; they were not left home alone or on the street, and they were not dumped off on a friend or neighbor’s doorstep. Clearly the mother needed help from the Division, but the facts do not show that she was abandoning her children or had any intent to do so. While the interests of the children are always paramount in these cases, more evidence needs to be presented before CP&P or a judge can say a parent has abandoned her children and is guilty of abuse or neglect.

The appeals court reversed the hearing judge’s decision and also ordered that the mother’s name be promptly removed from the child abuse registry.

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