Accidental Injury may Constitute Child Abuse or Neglect in NJ
Department of Human Services Findings may be Based on an Accident Resulting in Harm to a Child
The GS case reveals important information for both parents and any person who works with children. It’s very important to keep in mind, individuals who interact with children as part of their employment, can be investigated and subsequently prosecuted by the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (Division or DCP&P). The Division has a branch called The Institutional Abuse Investigation Unit (IAIU), which is a specific department devoted to investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect in out-of-home settings such as day care facilities, schools, resource homes, detention centers, and the like. Similar to parents, if a person is found liable for child abuse or neglect, their name is placed on the child abuse registry and disclosed to certain entities that work with children. Thus, if your career involves working with children, or you serve as a foster parent, or you wish to adopt a child someday, it is very important to stay off of the registry.
In GS v Department of Human Services, the defendant was a coordinator at a facility that cared for children with special needs. As part of her duties, she was responsible for administering medication to the children. The child who was injured in this case was autistic, non-verbal, developmentally disabled, and suffered from seizures. The mother had given the medication to the defendant for her to administer at the appropriate time. The facility had a written policy addressing medication. It required parents to supply the proper dosage in a clearly labeled bottle. Additionally, before administering any medicine, the coordinator was required to check the bottle for the child’s name, as well as ensure that the correct medicine, dosage, time, and method was displayed to make certain the medication was properly given.
When the time came to give the child his prescription, the coordinator opened the bottle and inside, she found “crushed pink pieces” of the pill. Confused about how much to administer, she spoke to another employee at the facility, who simply read the directions listed on the bottle. The directions stated that the child was to receive half a pill. Still uncertain about what do to, the coordinator gave the child what she believed to be the correct amount of medicine, which was the entire bottle.
Sadly, the child had an overdose and was rushed to the hospital. He remained there for 48-hours, and fortunately, the minor recovered and suffered no harm. Although the child returned to a healthy state, and the incident was, by all accounts, an accident, the Division concluded that the coordinator had committed an act of child neglect. She appealed the finding and the Appellate Division reversed the Division’s ruling. The Appellate Court held, accidental injuries cannot form the basis for a finding of neglect. The matter was appealed further and reviewed by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Is it Abuse or Neglect if a Child is Injured by Accident in New Jersey?
The Supreme Court overturned the Appellate Court’s ruling in this case and held that there was sufficient evidence in this case to find neglect.
The High Court first stated that the purpose and goal of our child welfare system is to protect children. As such, it doesn’t matter whether the parent or guardian intended to cause harm or it was the result of an accident. Intent is irrelevant.
The Court also examined the statutory language of the governing statute, which is Title 9. The statute states in pertinent part as follows: A parent or guardian commits an act of abuse or neglect if he or she inflicts or allows to be inflicted upon a child physical injury by other than accidental means. The statute further holds that a parent or guardian commits an act of abuse or neglect if a child’s physical, mental, or emotional condition has been impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired as a result of the parent or guardian’s failure to exercise a minimum degree of care.
The Court focused on the meaning of “other than accidental means” and “exercise a minimum degree of care.” The Court emphasized that just because the statute uses the word accident, that does not mean that an individual is immune from accountability simply because the injury was accidental. It distinguished the word accident from other than accidental means. To that end, it held that the term “means” refers to the cause of the injury and the term “accidental” refers to something unforeseen, unexpected or unusual. Putting those phrases together, the Court stated that when there is something unforeseen, unexpected, or unusual in the circumstances preceding the events, that injury has occurred by accidental means. But when the act which produced the unforeseen result was done exactly as intended and there was nothing unusual about it other than the result itself, only the result was accidental. Stated another way, if the act leading up to the injury was voluntarily undertaken and nothing unexpected or unforeseen occurred during that act, the resulting injury did not occur by accidental means as a matter of law. Consequently, a parent or guardian can commit child abuse even though the resulting injury is not intended. Thus, DCP&P and the courts must examine the circumstances leading up to the injury to determine whether it was caused by accidental means.
Applying those interpretations to the facts of the case, the GS Court ruled there was sufficient evidence to support a finding of neglect. The Court noted that the overdose was not caused by accidental means. The coordinator intentionally gave the child the entire bottle of medicine. There was nothing in the circumstances leading up to the injury that was “unusual” or “unexpected.” Although the coordinator did not intend to administer an overdose and the results of her actions were accidental, the action itself was deliberate.
What is a Minimum Degree of Care in a Child Abuse Case?
With respect to the phrase “minimum degree of care,” the Court ruled that the term refers to conduct that is grossly or wantonly negligent, but not necessarily intentional. Conduct is considered willful or wanton if done with the knowledge that an injury is likely to, or probably will, result. Because risks that are recklessly incurred are not considered unforeseen perils or accidents in the eyes of the law, actions taken with reckless disregard for the consequences also may be wanton or willful. Accordingly, the Court held that a parent or guardian fails to exercise a minimum degree of care when he or she is aware of the dangers inherent in a situation and fails adequately to supervise the child or recklessly creates a risk of serious injury to that child.
Additionally, the defendant’s conduct indisputably demonstrates that she failed to exercise a minimum degree of care. When she opened the bottle of medicine, she was unsure how much she was supposed to administer. She did not call the mother to seek clarification and she did not call a pharmacy to find out how large one pill was. She did absolutely nothing to ensure that she was administering the correct dosage. Instead, she recklessly gave the child the entire bottle of medication. As such, her conduct clearly rises to the level of wanton or willful. Intelligent adults understand the grave dangers associated with prescription medication. As a medication administrator, the coordinator should have been particularly sensitive to the dire consequences that could result from over-medicating a child. Even though she did not intend harm to befall the child, she utterly disregarded the substantial probability that harm would result from her actions. If he was on different medication, the outcome could have been more tragic. Therefore, by taking no action to clarify the situation, she failed to exercise even a minimum degree of care.
Applying GS v. Department of Human Services to Your Case
The GS ruling is very complicated but very important to understand if you are a caregiver. The best way to apply the case is to separate cause and result. Was the injury accidentally caused, or was the result accidental? For example, if a person is holding a child a few feet above the ground and as part of a playful game, repeatedly and purposefully drops the child. Unexpectedly, after dropping the child, he breaks his ankle due to the fall. Most would agree that the injury was accidental, thus, the result was accidental. Nevertheless, the individual could possibly be convicted of abuse.
However, if while holding the same child, the person suffers a heart attack and consequently drops the child, under those circumstances, the cause was accidental. It was unforeseen, unexpected or unusual, that an individual would suddenly suffer heart failure and as a result, a reviewing court would likely find that the cause or means of the injury was accidental. As such, the person would not be held accountable.
Was Your Child Injured by Accident in NJ?
If you have been accused of child abuse or neglect due to an accidental injury, you have the right to fight false allegations. Whether DCPP just started investigating you or you having an upcoming court case in the Family Division of a New Jersey Superior Court in Morris County, Bergen County, Passaic County, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, or another county in NJ, contact us for assistance with your defense today. A talented New Jersey child abuse defense lawyer is available around the clock to provide you with a free consultation. You can reach us online or by calling (908)-356-6900 for immediate assistance.