New Jersey court ruling clarifies child-welfare agency's power over parents

The New Jersey Supreme Court on Wednesday clarified when New Jersey's child welfare agency can quickly terminate the rights of parents suspected of child abuse. The court issued a decision stemming from a 2001 case in which the (NJ) Division of Youth and Family Services tried to terminate a New Jersey father's parental rights based on “aggravating circumstances” that made it unsafe for the three children to return to their father's home.

The children, ages 16, 10, and 9, were placed with grandparents in Florida after the 10-year-old came to school with bruises and welt marks, according to the court ruling. The father was arrested and charged with assault and child abuse and later admitted to the beating as a form of discipline, but said it was a “grievous error” and that he wanted his children back.

Two North Jersey doctors examined the child and told DYFS the child had been beaten “at least four to five” times, according to court documents. The children have since been moved into foster care after the grandparent's health deteriorated.

By law, the child welfare agency's first goal is to reunify children with birth parents. But if that effort fails, the agency can terminate parental rights and place the children up for adoption. DYFS can skip those initial efforts to reunify a family and instead move aggressively toward terminating parental rights if it proves “aggravating circumstances” make it too dangerous for a child to be returned there. But the definition of those circumstances remained open for debate.

The Supreme Court's ruling, written by Justice Virginia Long, creates a new definition which says “aggravating circumstances” are when abuse is “severe or repetitive” that the “circumstances created by the parent's conduct create an unacceptably high risk to the health, safety, and welfare of the child.” The new definition was originally written by an appellate court, which the Supreme Court affirmed in Wednesday's ruling.

The high court ordered the trial judge to take another look at the father's case based on the newly defined category. However, it did not overturn the decision.

The other scenarios in which DYFS can go straight to terminating parental rights are when the parent is convicted of a serious crime, such as murder or rape of a child, or if parental rights have been terminated for a previous child.

The Association of Children for New Jersey, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, praised the Supreme Court's ruling as one that will give more weight to a concept that lacked clarity. “It at least acknowledges that there are certain cases of serious abuse that should allow termination to be expedited, for the sake of the child,” said associate director Mary Coogan, who argued the case for ACNJ.

“It gives the trial courts, which are the ones making the day-to-day decisions, some guidance.” Legal Services of New Jersey, which represents impoverished clients, also filed a brief, urging the court to clarify standards that allow DYFS to skip efforts to reunify the family.

The group argued that the lack of a clear definition “cut [the father] from his children without further consideration or more evidence.”

By Michelle Han
19 March 2004

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