Div. of Child Prot. and Permanency v. J.R.-R.

As is often the case in family law matters, a heartbreaking set of facts led to a sea-change in the law. The New Jersey Supreme Court overruled the use of conditional res ipsa loquitur in abuse-and-neglect hearings. Here, a child’s parents brought him to the hospital with meningitis. Doctors discovered substantial injuries unrelated to meningitis that led the doctors to conclude that the child had been abused. The child was in the sole custody of his parents. At the hearing, the lower court found that DCP&P proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the child was abused and neglected but then confronted a more challenging question: “Who did what?” The lower court relied on the Appellate Division’s ruling in In re D.T., which held that the burden of persuasion shifted to the parents to establish they were not culpable. The lower court found that the parents did not carry their burden and that they abused the child. The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed. The Court noted that the Legislature assigned DCP&P the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that a parent has committed an act of abuse or neglect against a child in violation of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(4)(b). Although the statutory scheme allows for the nature of a child’s injuries to constitute prima facie evidence of abuse or neglect under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.46(a)(2), no statute in Title Nine suggests that the Legislature intended to shift the burden of proof to a parent accused of abuse or neglect. Thus, the lower court erred in placing the burden on the parents.

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