NJ Supreme Court Clarifies Burden of Proof in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases

In New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. J.R.-R. (A-56/57-19) (Decided September 27, 2021), the Supreme Court of New Jersey clarified that in a case where the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) has established that a child has been abused or neglected while in the care of his parents, the family court can’t shift the burden of proof to the parents to prove their non-culpability.

Facts of New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. J.R.-R.

Following his admission to a hospital, DCPP sought temporary custody of ten- month-old “Gabriel,” alleging he was an abused or neglected child as defined in N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c). Specifically, DCPP charged Gabriel’s parents, “Jenny” and “George,” with causing multiple injuries to Gabriel, some consistent with Shaken Baby Syndrome.

At an abuse and neglect hearing conducted in the Family Part, the court heard testimony from DCPP caseworkers and medical experts. The family court first determined that DCPP had proven that Gabriel had been abused and neglected and that his parents had been his sole caretakers when he suffered his injuries. Relying on In re D.T., 229 N.J. Super. 509, 517 (App. Div. 1988), and the doctrine of conditional res ipsa loquitur, the court then held that the burden of persuasion had shifted to each of the parents to establish that they were not culpable.

In light of that legal paradigm, the court evidently determined that Jenny and George had not satisfied their burden. The court found — without specifically identifying “who actually failed to supervise” or “who actually caused the injuries” — that both Jenny and George were responsible for the abuse and neglect of Gabriel under Title Nine. The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that the family court properly applied the conditional res ipsa doctrine to shift the burden of proof to the parents. It further concluded that sufficient credible evidence in the record supported the court’s abuse and neglect findings. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted Jenny’s and George’s petitions for certification.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. J.R.-R.

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously reversed. In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that the Judiciary has no commission to exercise equitable powers to alter the statutory burden of proof set forth by the Legislature. “We have no authority to import the burden-shifting equitable doctrine of conditional res ipsa loquitur from our tort law into Title Nine, a comprehensive and carefully conceived statutory scheme in which the Legislature has determined that DCPP (Division of Child Protection and Permanency) bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that a parent or guardian has committed an act of child abuse or neglect” Justice Barry Albin wrote.

The New Jersey Supreme Court also rejected the Appellate Division cases that have imported the doctrine of conditional res ipsa loquitur from the state’s common law into a comprehensive statutory scheme to relieve DCPP of its burden of proving that a particular parent abused or neglected a child. Justice Albin wrote:

DCPP’s burden of proof, as established by Title Nine, represents one facet of our Legislature’s chosen balance between the welfare of children and the rights of parents. The burden-shifting approach in Anderson — akin to “conditional res ipsa” — is solely a creature of our common law and developed in the context of a medical malpractice case for a “narrow set of factual circumstances.” See Estate of Chin v. Saint Barnabas Med. Ctr., 160 N.J. 454, 465 (1999). We will not upset the Legislature’s chosen design for Title Nine by injecting a common law burden-shifting doctrine into a determination of whether a parent committed a statutory violation of child abuse or neglect. If the Legislature intended such a burden-shift in Title Nine, it undoubtedly would have said so explicitly.

In light of its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court remanded for a new hearing on the abuse and neglect charges. “We do not pass judgment on the weight or the sufficiency of the evidence presented by DCPP. We hold only that the family court must conduct a new hearing, follow the dictates of Title Nine, and determine whether DCPP has carried the burden of persuasion by a preponderance of the evidence that either or both parents committed an act of abuse or neglect as defined in N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21,” Justice Albin explained. “In making that determination, the court may draw reasonable inferences consistent with N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.46(a)(2).”

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