N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10 requires any person who has reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse or acts of child abuse to report such conduct to the Division of Youth and Family Services by telephone or otherwise. Child abuse is defined as the unnecessary infliction of suffering or pain, mental or physical, upon a child. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.14. To encourage the making of such reports the Legislature provided that:
Anyone acting pursuant to this act in the making of a report under this act shall have immunity from liability, civil or criminal, that might otherwise be incurred or imposed. Any such person shall have the same immunity with respect to testimony given in any judicial proceeding resulting from such a report. [ N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.13]
The novel issue in this case, which has never been addressed by our courts, is whether a mother who was indicted on seven counts of endangering the welfare of her two-year-old daughter, L.H., in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4a, and one count of
attempting to hinder prosecution, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1 and 2C:29-3a, is entitled to immunity pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.13 because she reported to the police, acts of child abuse committed during this same period of time by her live-in boy-friend and co-defendant, David Stamps. We hold she is not entitled to immunity.
On November 17, 1987 at approximately 7:00 a.m. defendant, Patricia Hill, called the police to report that David Stamps had abused her daughter. A hospital examination of the child revealed multiple injuries, including lacerations, cuts, bruises of the mouth, face and body which required the child to be hospitalized for three days. The report of the examining physician concluded that the injuries to the child:
were of such a severity and such location that they could have potentially led to a fatal outcome or incapacitating injury of a permanent nature due to brain injury or loss of vision.
David Stamps was indicted on three counts of endangering the welfare of a child, one count of attempting to hinder prosecution and one count of aggravated assault which alleges he:
did purposely or knowingly cause serious bodily injury to L.H. and/or under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, did recklessly cause serious bodily injury to L.H., contrary to the provisions of N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(1).
Defendant contends that the conduct of David Stamps constituted child abuse which she was required to report to the authorities and, consequently, she is entitled to the statutory immunity. Although the report was made to the police and not the Division of Youth and Family Services, as literally required by the statute, defendant argues that the distinction is one of form and not of substance because a police officer who receives a complaint of child abuse must report such information to the Division of Youth and Family Services. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.25(b). Thus, she contends that her report to the police constitutes substantial compliance with the statute.
The Legislature obviously recognized that reports of child abuse frequently are not made because of the understandable reluctance of many persons ...