The law requires a report to the child abuse agency any time a person has reason to believe that the child has been abused. The plain language of the statute does not address neglect, however. Generally, what I tell people is that you should consider the impact of the conduct at issue on the child when you’re categorizing something as child abuse. Most cases brought by CPS in court address neglect, and over 80% of the litigated cases where the agency takes a parent to court have some form of growth-neglect claim. Things such as substance abuse, domestic violence, general parental unfitness – all of those issues are what we typically see when you’re in court with them.
When you think about whether or not you as an individual should be raising those concerns with CPS, you should be thinking about what CPS is likely to find when they do their investigations. Are they likely to say the behavior is simply negligent – i.e., the parent could have done a better job but did not do something horrid to the child? Or is the behavior to the point of recklessness – i.e., is this something that any reasonable person would know or should have known would harm a child?
And when we look at that differentiation, it’s sometimes difficult to tell because case law is very discrepant in terms of defining what circumstances are and are not child abuse and neglect. If there’s a question, the safest course of action is always to file an application in Superior Court to protect the child and allow the court to make the referral to CPS. If the court chooses not to make the referral, then at least the parent has done everything that he or she needs to do to make sure that the child is safe. If the court does make the referral, then you have the dual protection: you have the court overseeing the matter and you have the Child Protective Services agency involved.
Allison C. Williams is a matrimonial and family law attorney serving Short Hills New Jersey. Her practice places an emphasis on complex child welfare matters. www.familylawyersnewjersey.com