TRENTON, NJ (AP) – Slapping a teenager or taking money from her paycheck to pay family bills is hardly admirable, but doesn’t constitute child neglect or abuse, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
In a 7-0 decision, the court found the state Division of Youth and Family Services lacked sufficient evidence to remove a teenager from her father and stepmother’s home in 2008, and dropped the abuse and neglect judgment against her stepmother.
“The parental decisions made within this family unit may not have been exemplars of stellar parenting, but they did not rise to the level of Title Nine violations,” wrote Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, referring to New Jersey’s child abuse laws.
The girl was removed from the home after her grandfather reported the parents for taking her earnings from her part-time job and “slapping her around.” A DYFS worker also found the home was without heat and authorized an emergency removal.
The father told a DYFS representative that his wife had slapped his daughter once two years earlier, and that part of his daughter’s earnings went to the cable bill. The couple said their central heating was broken, and they were using space heaters. The family members were not named the decision.
The Supreme Court found that an occasional slap, “although hardly admirable … does not fit a common sense prohibition against ‘excessive’ corporal punishment.” And classifying as abuse and neglect the requirement of a working-aged child to contribute to the family finances is “simply wide of the mark,” LaVecchia wrote.
The girl is no longer a minor, so the court’s decision did not affect her custody.
A spokesman for the state Public Defender’s office, which represented the stepmother in the case, said the court’s decision solidifies the definition of child neglect.
“The court properly determined that the minor difficulties that occur within a family regarding disciplining a child, heating a home and the relationship with a grandparent fall far short of neglect or abuse of a child under New Jersey law,” said spokesman Tom Rosenthal in a statement.
Lauren Kidd, a spokesperson for the Department of Children and Families, which oversees DYFS, declined comment, saying the department does not discuss litigation.
In its decision, the Supreme Court reprimanded DYFS.
“That DYFS did not make any offer of assistance to remedy the heating problem is troubling, particularly to the extent that the deficient central heating component of the home was used as a basis for removing (her),” LaVecchia wrote. “Most of the allegations were the product of the family’s tight financial situation.”
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said DYFS “made everything worse.”
“There was nothing wrong in this family that some concrete help to pay the heating bill and perhaps a little counseling couldn’t solve,” he said. “All of that time and that money was in effect stolen from some child we may never know who really is in danger and really does need to be taken from his home.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)