On October 2, 2012, the Appellate Division published the case of DYFS (DCPP) v. S.N.W., providing trial Courts with guidance to determine allegations of neglect where a parent consumes prescription medication to the point of intoxication.
In S.N.W., the parents both ingested prescribed Xanax – allegedly more than the maximum dosage permitted per day – while caring for their children, and as a result of the ingestion, became shaky and unstable, coherent, but visibly intoxicated. During the initial trial, the only evidence of intoxication was the observations of the police officer and the DYFS (DCPP) worker. No medical evidence supported intoxicated; none was offered. Evidence tended to suggest that the mother had taken more medication than was prescribed.
The trial court made a finding of neglect, after which an appeal ensued. Ultimately, the case resulted in this published decision, where the Appellate Division gave us two valuable holdings for defense of parents in these cases. First, the Court held that trial Courts MUST focus on the conduct of the parent when evaluating neglect cases – the G.S. standard of “willful and wanton misconduct” that rises to the level of recklessness MUST be present to have “neglect” pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c).
Second, if the parent ingests medication as prescribed, the legal standard for neglect precludes a finding of neglect. However, if the medication dosage was exceeded, a neglect finding is NOT automatic. Rather, the Court must evaluate various factors, including but not limited to the amount ingested, the physical effect on the parent, whether excess dosage was accidental or deliberate, and the ability of the parent to exercise the minimum degree of care in that state. Again, the Court reiterated – and strengthened the ultimate conclusion – that knee-jerk assumptions of “drugs = neglect” are NOT acceptable under New Jersey law.