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Department of Children and Families, Division of Youth and Family v. T.B

August 8, 2011

DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES, DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
T.B., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long

SYLLABUS

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Dep't of Children & Families, Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. T.B.

(A-21-10) (066294)

Argued February 28, 2011 -- Decided August 8, 2011

LONG, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

In this appeal, the Court considers whether a finding of neglect was properly entered against a mother who left her four-year-old child unsupervised for two hours under the mistaken belief that his grandmother was home.

Susan and her then four-year-old-son, John, were living with Susan's mother, Mary, and step-father, Jim, who assisted in caring for John on a regular basis. Although Susan and John lived downstairs, the entire house was accessible to John, and he moved freely to the upstairs portion of the home where his grandparents lived. On Sunday, March 25, 2007, Susan and John returned home between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Susan immediately put John to bed and, with the belief that Mary was home, went to eat dinner with a friend. Susan believed that Mary was home sleeping because she saw Mary's car in the driveway; Mary had been ill all week with the flu; Mary was always home on Sunday nights to prepare for work on Monday morning; and Jim worked on Sunday nights. Mary, however, was not home because she and Jim took an impromptu trip to New York. Shortly after 9:00 p.m., John woke up and discovered that he was alone. He left the house, crossed the street, and told his neighbor that he could not find his mother. The police department was contacted. When Susan returned from dinner between 9:30 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. she was transported to the police station, where she gave a handwritten statement. Mary and Jim returned from New York and attested to the impromptu nature of their trip and that Mary is always home on Sunday nights. No criminal charges were filed against Susan and the matter was turned over to DYFS.

DYFS substantiated the neglect allegation against Susan based upon inadequate supervision, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b). Susan filed an appeal and the matter was referred to the Office of Administrative Law. After a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) recommended dismissal of the charges against Susan, concluding that DYFS did not prove by a preponderance of evidence that the physical, mental, or emotional condition of Susan's child was impaired or was in imminent danger of becoming impaired as a result of her failure to exercise a minimum degree of care. The DYFS Director rejected the ALJ's decision and reinstated DYFS's finding substantiating child neglect against Susan. The DYFS Director observed that Susan failed to take the cautionary actions of supervision that are expected and, although John was not harmed, the omission exposed him to a substantial risk of harm. The Appellate Division affirmed. The Appellate Division was satisfied that sufficient credible evidence existed in the record to support the Director's finding that Susan failed to exercise the minimum degree of care required by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b), and concluded that Susan had placed John at substantial risk of harm by failing to ensure that her mother or step-father was at home before leaving the house. The Supreme Court granted Susan's petition for certification. 204 N.J. 40 (2010).

HELD: Susan did not fail to "exercise a minimum degree of care" under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b) because her conduct did not rise to the level of gross negligence or recklessness. Therefore, her name must be removed from the Child Abuse Registry.

1. The Court is not bound by an agency's interpretation of a statute or its determination of a strictly legal issue. When the Court examines a statute, the goal is to discern and effectuate the Legislature's intent. If a plain-language reading of the statute leads to a clear and unambiguous result, then the interpretive process is over. Only if there is ambiguity will the Court turn to extrinsic evidence, including a statute's legislative history. (pp. 10-11)

2. Title Nine of the New Jersey Statutes controls the adjudication of abuse and neglect cases. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b), the provision at issue here, defines "abused or neglected child" as: "a child 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, as herein defined, 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 . . . ." Here, the dispute is about the "failure . . . to exercise a minimum degree of care" language. (pp. 12-13)

3. In G.S. v. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs., 157 N.J. 161 (1999), the Court defined "minimum degree of care" as "conduct that is grossly or wantonly negligent, but not necessarily intentional." The Court explained that "willful and wanton misconduct implies that a person has acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others" and that under such a standard, "a person is liable for the foreseeable consequences of her actions, regardless of whether she actually intended to cause injury." Therefore, "failure . . . to exercise a minimum degree of care" at least requires grossly negligent or reckless conduct. Furthermore, pursuant to G.S., "When a cautionary act by the guardian would prevent a child from having his or her physical, mental or emotional condition impaired, that guardian has failed to exercise a minimum degree of care as a matter of law." The "cautionary act" language in G.S. is informed by the grossly negligent or reckless standard that that case established. Therefore, when the failure to perform a cautionary act is merely negligent, it does not trigger N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b). Focus on the parent's level of culpability is in synchronicity with the Legislature's expressed purpose to safeguard children. Where a parent or guardian acts in a grossly negligent or reckless manner, that deviation from the standard of care may support an inference that the child is subject to future danger. To the contrary, where a parent is merely negligent, there is no warrant to infer that the child will be at future risk. (pp. 13-19)

4. The Appellate Division has interpreted the abuse or neglect statute in light of G.S. In N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.R., 419 N.J. Super. 538 (App. Div. 2011), a ten-month-old was burned after his father put him on a twin bed without rails next to a radiator. The Appellate Division concluded that the father's conduct amounted to gross negligence because an ordinary reasonable person would understand the perilous situation in which the child was placed. In N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. J.L., 410 N.J. Super. 159 (App. Div. 2009), a mother allowed her young children to walk from a playground to their visible condominium while she remained at the playground. After the door closed and locked the children inside, they called 9-1-1. The Appellate Division stated that the mother's conduct, although arguably inattentive or even negligent, did not meet the G.S. standard. Those cases demonstrate that it can be difficult to determine whether a particular event is to be classified as merely negligent, grossly negligent, or reckless. The parent's conduct must be evaluated in context based on the risks posed by the situation. (pp. 19-22)

5. Susan's conduct did not constitute a failure to "exercise a minimum degree of care." Susan did not leave her son at home alone knowing there was no adult supervision. Instead, Susan, who lived with her parents and is intimately familiar with the rhythms of their every-day-family-life, arrived at her home on a Sunday night and saw her mother's car in the driveway. She knew that her mother was always home on Sunday nights and that her mother had been ill all week with the flu. Further, her mother and step-father attested that Susan's mother is always home on Sunday nights and that the trip to New York was unexpected. What occurred was totally out of the ordinary. Susan's failure to perform the cautionary act of assuring her mother's presence was clearly negligent. Under all of the circumstances known to her, however, it did not rise to the level of gross negligence or recklessness. (pp. 22-23)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the matter is REMANDED to the DYFS Director for removal of Susan's name from the Child Abuse Registry.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion.

Argued February 28, 2011

JUSTICE LONG delivered the opinion of the Court.

On this appeal, we revisit the language of Title Nine, N.J.S.A. 9:6-1 to -8.106, in particular, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4), which defines the term "abused or neglected child." Specifically, we must determine whether a finding of neglect was properly entered against a mother who left her four-year-old child unsupervised for two hours under the mistaken belief that his grandmother was home. The Appellate Division affirmed the neglect determination by the Director of the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). We granted the mother's petition for certification, N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. T.B., 204 N.J. 40 (2010), and now reverse.

I. A.

The following facts, derived from the evidence adduced at the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) hearing, form the backdrop for this appeal: In early spring of 2007, Susan and her then four-year-old-son, John, were living with Susan's mother, Mary, and step-father, Jim (collectively "grandparents")*fn1 , in a ranch-style home in Atlantic Highlands. Although Susan and John lived downstairs in a space with its own bedrooms, living room, bathroom, and kitchen, the entire house was accessible to John, and he moved freely from Susan's living area to the upstairs portion of the home where his grandparents lived. At the time of the incident giving rise to this appeal, Mary and Jim assisted in caring for John on a regular basis because Susan's schedule was extremely busy: she worked full time as a teacher, attended post-graduate courses, and supplemented her income by instructing yoga classes. Mary and Jim's work schedules afforded them the ability to care for John on a routine basis.

On Sunday, March 25, 2007, Susan and John spent the day visiting family. By the time they returned home, between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., John had fallen asleep in the car, and Susan immediately put him to bed. Susan saw Mary's car in the driveway and assumed that she was in the house sleeping because she had been ill; because she was "always home" and "in bed early" on Sunday nights to prepare for work on Monday morning; and because Jim worked the night shift on Sundays. With the belief that Mary was home, Susan went to eat dinner with a friend. In fact, Mary was not home; rather, she made an impromptu decision to go with Jim to New York.

Shortly after 9:00 p.m., John woke up and discovered that he was alone. He left the house, crossed the street -- "a 25 mile[-]an[-]hour residential street with constant traffic" --and told his neighbor that he could not find his mother. The neighbor contacted Officer Duda, a policeman who lived nearby. Duda knocked on Susan's door, and when no one responded, he called the Atlantic Highlands Police Department.

Sergeant Stone arrived at Susan's home and noted that there were two vehicles in the driveway: Susan's and Mary's. While Stone waited for another officer to arrive, he briefly interviewed John, who was visibly upset and wanted his mother. When the second officer arrived, Stone entered the house and determined that no one was home.

Between 9:30 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., Susan returned from dinner. Upon seeing the officers, she immediately became worried that something had happened to her parents. Stone informed Susan that her parents were not home, and that John had walked across the street to a neighbor's house. Hearing that news, Susan became upset and began to cry. Stone observed that John was "very happy" when ...


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