On July 20, 2012, the Appellate Division affirmed a trial court finding of abuse and neglect in a case where a father handled a three-month-old baby so roughly as to break his collarbone and cause various fractures. (DYFS v. J.F.) At the end of the decision, the court held that the “preponderance” standard is the appropriate standard for a abuse and neglect matters. But is it?
The rationale for using our judicial system’s lowest burden of proof in abuse and neglect matters is to err on the side of caution where protection of children is at issue. Yet, in DYFS v. J.Y., our court recognized the severe impingement upon family life resulting from a finding of abuse and neglect. Where parental rights are at stake, shouldn’t our judicial system require proof of abuse or neglect by a clear and convincing standard?
The J.F. court thought the lowest burden of proof was appropriate because of the subject matter – i.e., protecting children. After all, the preponderance standard, i.e., the “more likely than not”/50.1 % rule, is most likely to result in false positives. But we bear that risk in the name of “protecting children”. The court found it more protective of children to have Child abuse over-diagnosed then under-diagnosed. Yet, by the time the court system gets to a fact-finding hearing where the ultimate issue of abuse or neglect is determined, the children have already been “protected” by DYFS intrusion for the better part of a year! In fact, in J.F., by the time the case involving sophisticated medical science (rib fractures) was presented at trial, the parents had already completed all services DYFS requested and were immediately reunified with the children, even after the court found the children “abused” at trial.
In this circumstance, can one really suggest that the banging of the gavel and declaration of the children as being “abused” truly offered protection? Or, was the true “protection” in the court’s initial assumption that DYFS was correct, as is done at the initial filing, whether DYFS ultimately proves its case or not?
The J.F. case evidences the fallacy of our child welfare system – i.e., that branding parents as having committed an act of abuse or neglect and sticking the parent’s name on the DCF registry somehow “protects” children.
Yet, at the end of day, it is still the division’s imperative to assign parents the label of child abusers and stick their name on this registry, file litigation immediately severing or severely restricting parental access, for months on end, leaving parents to eventually fight the good fight all in the name of “child protection”. But does giving the parents that label do anything other then demonize often accidental behavior, under the guise of “child protection”? This fallacy undergirds many Appellate Division decisions reversing findings of abuse or neglect where the sole “benefit” of having the finding is “protecting” children who were long-ago return to their parents before a trial ever occurs.
Is this fallacy of child protection really how we want our child welfare system to operate?