In the recent unpublished decision of DYFS v. M.P. & D.C., the Appellate Division reversed a trial Court’s finding of abuse and neglect against a mother, determining the ruling was insufficient as a matter of law. Albeit in relatively innocuous prose, the Appellate panel appeared cognizant of the inclination of some lower Courts to adjudicate imperfect parenting as abuse and neglect. For instance, in this case, the mother and 2 kids were staying in a trailer/camper while visiting relatives in New Jersey. The trial Court found the camper “inadequate” – “a fact that would support the unlikely conclusion that every child on a camping trip with a parent or guardian is abused or neglected”.
This powerful dicta raises an important issue for consideration. How many times are parents found to have abused or neglected a child, when all the parent really did was live a less-than-perfect existence? How often do Courts truly require “willful and wanton misconduct” by a parent, with an attendant negative consequence for a child – either harm or substantial risk of harm – before the parent is branded with the lifetime label of abuser? Defense counsel must be mindful to reiterate these standards in EVERY case to ensure that “imperfection of parenting” does not transmute into the “imperviousness of labeling” parents.