NJ Court: Only Real Harm Constitutes Child Neglect

Parents get some much-needed relief in one state regarding prosecution for child neglect. Pray that common sense spreads to other states.

In addition to many stories about children being grabbed by police from public parks, and parents being prosecuted for letting children out of their sight, Mark Horne once even posted about a supervised child who was still being “neglected” according to the police. In that case, the car was running with the air conditioning and an adult was watching the sleeping children from the next parking space where her own children were sleeping while the mother grabbed a needed item from the store.

All it takes is one nosy bystander calling 911 and suddenly we have a major incident.

That post was about South Carolina. A similar prosecution occurred in New Jersey but the state Supreme Court gave the mother some relief. Cultural blogger Gene Veith explains:

A mother in New Jersey left her sleeping daughter in the car for 5-10 minutes while she dashed inside a store in a suburban mall.  Someone noticed, and the mother was charged with child endangerment.  But the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in the mother’s favor, making an interesting legal distinction.

In a unanimous decision, the court said that the law must consider only actual harm, as opposed to possible harm.  That is to say, we worry about what might happen to the child left in the car (a bad guy could run away with her; she could wake up, start the car, and run it into a building, etc.).  But the law can only deal with what does happen.

Does this mean that what the woman did was risk-free or wise? Not necessarily. But there are other ways to intervene when people do something inadvisable than punishing them through the criminal justice system (or the “family law” system, if that is distinct).

People can respond to other inputs besides civil punishments. As Veith mentions, no one is going to be a perfect parent. Forcing parents to either be perfect or be convicted criminals is not in the best interests of the children or of society.

Veith quotes Leonora Skenazy in the Tulsa World:

You see, it is very easy to imagine a child dying in a car, because that’s what we’ve been told to do by endless public service announcements and articles about this “danger” to kids.

And though it’s true that some kids do die in parked cars, it’s also true that more kids die while on foot in parking lots and driveways. And even more kids die in cars that are moving. You know — as passengers. So if we really want to save kids, we might arrest any parent evil enough to drive kids anywhere.

I don’t know if Skenazy wants this to be the definitive legal standard, but it gives us a pretty good starting point. Let me see if I can express it as a clear principle: When you prosecute parents for risking the safety of their children, and the risks are not greater than risks that parents are permitted and expected to take with their children on a daily basis, then your prosecution is insane.

Make sense?