Life can be crazy. If you have young children, life is undoubtedly filled with its share of happy surprises, trials, and tribulations. Some days may go smoothly while on others your child or children may seem to come from a different planet. Despite everything you go through, you love your child or children and you know what is best for him or her. Needless to say, you would never intentionally or knowingly take any action that jeopardized his or her safety and well-being.

Unfortunately, and despite the good intentions behind the legislation, our society can have a tendency to be rather reactionary and take a knee-jerk reaction against a problem prior to understanding the nuances behind it. In some cases, the law may be written in such a way as to remove common sense from the equation. This is unfortunately the scenario faced by some parents, guardians, and other caregivers charged under New Jersey’s statute defining child abuse. Under this law some parents were charged with abuse of their own child despite never actually placing the child in any harm or danger.

driving a car at night

The Dangers of Leaving a Child in an Unattended Vehicle

Before delving into the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision, it is important to first take a moment and recognize the real risk of heat stroke in young children. Experts warn that best parenting practices dictate that a child should never be left unattended in a motor vehicle regardless of the weather. Even when temperatures are merely warm, if the car is parked in direct sunlight the vehicle can quickly reach dangerous temperatures that can injure or kill a young child.

The reasons for this danger are two-fold. First, the metal and glass bodies of a modern automobile produces an effect that is similar to that of a greenhouse. On a day where the ambient temperature is merely 72 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature in the car can increase by as much as 30 to 40 degrees in n hour with much of the increase occurring during the first half-hour. Second, the body of a child is significantly more susceptible to the effects of heat stroke because children are less able to regulate their body temperature. Temperatures above 104 degrees can cause heat stroke in any individual, but the onset of signs and symptoms can occur extremely rapidly in a child. Children under four years of age are at particular risk. Since the beginning of 2014, 45 children have died due to heat stroke in a hot car.

NJ Supreme Court Strikes Down Ban on Leaving Child in Car

In a decision that recognizing that one-size-fits-all parenting simply does not and cannot work, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the facts and circumstances surrounding the parent’s decision should be considered prior to a finding of child abuse by the parent. That is, the Supreme Court has not declared that it is okay to leave a child behind in a car. Rather, they have said that leaving a child in a car does not automatically result in a finding of child abuse. The parent will have the opportunity to show that under the facts and circumstances the act did not constitute child abuse.

scales of justice in court room

In the future before issuing a finding of child abuse state officials will be required to engage in a fact-based analysis. The official must consider factors such as the parent’s ability to keep the car in their sight, the length of time the child was unattended, the ambient temperature, the ability to access the vehicle. In circumstances where a child is left behind in a car, a hearing considering the ‘totality of the circumstances’ will be utilized to determine whether a finding of child abuse can be entered. In short, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b) requires a finding that the child was subjected to a imminent risk of harm before the state may step in. In these circumstances, this determination must be made at a hearing based on the totality of the circumstances?

Facing Child Abuse Accusations?

If you have been charged with endangering the welfare of your child, you face serious consequences that can cause significant damage not only to your reputation but to your family. The experienced criminal defense attorneys of the Law Offices of John J. Zarych can fight for you. To schedule a free and confidential criminal defense consultation call (609) 616-4956 or contact us online.