In Brief

N.J. Supreme Court rules parents cannot be forced to prove innocence in child abuse cases

By: - September 27, 2021 12:19 pm

The decision stems from a 2018 case involving an apparently abused infant whose parents were stripped of custody after trial. (Courtesy of NJ Courts)

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday family courts cannot require parents affirmatively prove they did not abuse their children, sending a case involving alleged child abuse back to family court.

The decision stems from a 2018 case involving an apparently abused infant whose parents were stripped of custody after trial and appellate judges asked they prove they did not abuse their son. None of the parties are identified by full names in the decision.

A physician found the infant was bruised, had damage to connective tissue in his neck, and had blood spillage in his brain — injuries that suggest shaken baby syndrome and which the doctor said were unexplained by the bout of bacterial meningitis that brought him to the hospital.

A separate physician, called by the defense, testified those injuries and others were indicative of past abuse, though a doctor called by the defendants said the life-threatening infection and the seizures it caused could explain most of the injuries.

The trial court found the child’s injuries indicated abuse, which the Division of Child Protection and Permanency inferred could only have been enacted by the infant’s parents.

The burden of evidence then shifted to the parents, who were tasked with proving they did not allow their child to be injured or that they did not inflict the injuries themselves.

Neither testified, and both were found responsible for the alleged abuse and neglect, though the court never identified specifically who caused the injuries.

An appellate panel upheld the decision, but the high court found previous judges presiding over the case erred in extending the burden-shifting principle to the parents.

Though common law allows for such a shift in certain civil cases, the Supreme Court found Monday the judiciary lacks the authority to extend that principle to Title 9, the statute governing the state’s family courts.

That law places the burden of proof on the Division of Child Protection and Permanency, the decision says, and the courts cannot shift that burden elsewhere because the law was crafted by the Legislature and the judiciary has no authority to rewrite the law.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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