June 01, 2014

Mother Did Not Neglect Children Because She Was Homeless

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

In re I.W., 87 A.3d 279 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div.).

Where mother attempted but failed to find employment, or secure housing through friends, family, or public assistance programs, her children could not be adjudicated neglected because neglect findings cannot be based solely on poverty.

A family came to the attention of the child welfare agency in 2010 when the mother was arrested on drug charges. She completed her case plan and reunified with her children in 2011. Though the case was dismissed, she voluntarily continued to receive services from the agency. 

In 2012, the mother brought her children to the agency because she was homeless. She had tried looking for employment, seeking help from family and her fiancé, and applying for public assistance, but nothing panned out. The children were healthy and well cared for at the time. 

At the adjudicatory hearing, the court found the children were neglected due to the mother’s poor planning. Specifically, it noted the mother had housing available out of state, but had come back to New Jersey for a family funeral without sufficient funds to return. The court continued to disposition and the children remained in agency custody.

The mother appealed to the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division. The Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division reversed.

The Appellate Division first noted that prior case law has repeatedly held that poverty alone is not sufficient for a neglect adjudication. Here, the court held, any poor planning on mother’s part was either tied to poverty or otherwise understandable. She sought assistance diligently. She had anticipated that her fiancé would be able to secure housing for the family. Her action in bringing the children to the agency rather than subjecting them to further homelessness was in fact responsible. 

Rather than adjudicate the children neglected, the case should have been handled under a provision in New Jersey’s statute allowing the agency to provide services even when parents are not at fault.