CHILD AND YOUTH CARE
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 group argued that the lack of a clear definition
“cut [the father] from his children without further consideration or
By Michelle Han
19 March 2004