(Note: Some names have been changed to protect privacy.)
On a cool May morning in 2009, Eleanor, a stay-at-home mother of four, parked her car about 150 feet from the entrance of a Dollar Tree in South Plainfield, New Jersey. With her 19-month-old daughter asleep in a car seat, Eleanor cracked the windows, left the engine running, locked the doors, and ran into the store to pick up party supplies, leaving her child alone in the car. When Eleanor returned to the car five to ten minutes later, police officers arrested her. A security guard had noticed the child and called 911. Eleanor was charged with child endangerment and released on her own recognizance.
Within days, a New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency caseworker arrived at Eleanor’s home to investigate. The caseworker found all of Eleanor’s children—including her other three, ages ten, seven, and five—healthy, happy, and appropriately dressed. They had current immunizations and were covered by health insurance. The house was clean and safe. With no signs of abuse or neglect in the home, the division narrowed its focus to the incident in question. Eleanor admitted to the caseworker that she knew what she’d done was wrong.
Two weeks later, the division filed a civil action, seeking custody of all four children. After months of interviews and random visits to Eleanor’s home, the division dismissed the case on September 3. However, the division’s director had already determined that, according to New Jersey child abuse law, Eleanor had been neglectful in the car incident—though she was aware of the inherent dangers, she did not exercise a “minimum degree of care” and failed “to adequately supervise the child.” As a result, Eleanor was put on the child abuse registry alongside men who’d been charged with raping their daughters.
Eleanor’s lawyers, Daniel Epstein and Chris Handman, filed an appeal with the division, arguing that Eleanor should have had a hearing and claiming that the director’s determination was “legally insufficient.”
Epstein explains, “She deserves a hearing in front of a judge to determine whether or not she is likely to do this again and whether she belongs on the registry.”
Was Eleanor an abusive and neglectful parent for leaving her toddler alone in the car for ten minutes? You be the judge.
The appeals court sided with the Division of Child Protection and Permanency. Since Eleanor didn’t dispute the facts of the incident, there was no cause for a hearing. As for the charge, Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. explained, “A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone in a motor vehicle that is out of the parent’s sight, no matter how briefly.” Twenty states have made it a crime to leave kids in cars. While there’s no law in New Jersey, a state assemblyman introduced a bill in September that, if passed, would make leaving a child under six alone in a car punishable by a $500 fine. If the child is injured, the fine could increase to $15,000 plus up to five years in prison. Eleanor’s attorney is still fighting for a hearing. “She represents absolutely no recurring threat for this to happen again,” Epstein says. “This was a one-off mistake that doesn’t rise to the level of abuse.” He petitioned the State Supreme Court to review the case. In July, the justices agreed to hear the appeal, though no date has been set. “I believe we have a strong case,” Epstein says.