NEWARK — A New Jersey woman didn’t neglect or abuse her baby even though the boy was born with cocaine in his system, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a decision that reversed lower-court findings.
The court ruled unanimously in the case of a Cape May County woman identified only as “A.L.”
The baby boy was born in September 2007 and tested positive for cocaine but was otherwise healthy and was discharged within two days, according to court documents. The positive test and the mother’s positive test for cocaine prompted an investigation by the Division of Youth and Family Services.
When questioned, A.L. denied using cocaine while pregnant and said she ingested it two days earlier when a bag of cocaine held by a friend spilled on her. She also blamed a positive marijuana test on secondhand smoke. A judge called those explanations “preposterous” in 2008 and agreed with DYFS that she had abused and neglected the child. An appeals court upheld the ruling in 2011.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court agreed with A.L.'s argument that state law governing child abuse and neglect doesn’t apply to a fetus and that evidence of prenatal drug use isn’t enough to support a finding of abuse when the baby exhibits no post-birth complications.
“Court decisions in New Jersey have declined to extend the reach of a statute to an unborn child when the statute refers to a ‘person’ or a ‘child,'” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote. “Because the abuse and neglect statute, by its terms, does not extend to a fetus, the law’s protection is limited to the condition of a child after birth.”
Rabner added that though the court doesn’t condone the use of cocaine, the case is about the specific language in the abuse and neglect statute and not about the morality of A.L.'s behavior.
A.L.'s attorneys praised the decision.
“This decision certainly clarifies the issue of what constitutes abuse and neglect and how it can be proven,” said Robin Veasey, deputy state public defender for parental representation.
Though A.L. has had custody of the baby and a sibling under DYFS supervision, the reversal of the abuse and neglect finding could result in the removal of her name from a registry of people found to have abused or neglected a child. That designation can have a negative effect on a person’s future employment and in other areas, said assistant state public defender Janice Anderson.
The state attorney general’s office, which argued the case on behalf of DYFS, didn’t immediately comment on the ruling.