A medical malpractice case published on November 16, 2012, provides us with a new standard – and clear requirements – for reporting child abuse and neglect. In L.A. v. New Jersey Div. of Youth and Fam. Svcs, Jersey Shore Medical Center, Dr. Yu, et. al.
, the Appellate Division interpreted the mandatory reporting provisions of Title 9, specifically N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10, which provides: “[a]ny person having reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse, or acts of child abuse, shall report the same immediately to [DYFS]”.
In L.A., a physician was sued for medical malpractice because of his failure to report to DYFS a child’s treatment in the Emergency Room. The child ingested cologne and was found to have a blood alcohol content of .035. There was no allegation or concern that this ingestion was intentional or a purposeful act of her caregivers. But, rather, concern arose over whether or not the child had been the subject of inadequate supervision or some other form of negligent conduct. In the child welfare conduct, “negligence” is defined as willful and wanton misconduct – i.e., the recklessness standard. This physician asserted that he had no concern for physical abuse, and therefore, no duty to report to DYFS.
The Appellate Division disagreed. In interpreting the mandatory reporting provisions of Title 9, the Court remanded the case to the trial court for a jury trial on the issue of whether or not the physician breached his duty of care and committed medical malpractice by failing to report negligence (i.e., recklessness) to DYFS. Ultimately, this ruling is consonant with the rubric of analysis in child welfare cases – child abuse and neglect endangers child safety, and therefore, should be addressed through the procedures established by law. However, L.A. raises the series of concerns for New Jersey families.
First, the Appellate Division notes that the mandatory reporting is no longer just for medical professionals, but for “any person”. Since L.A. requires reporting of negligent conduct for physicians, that mandate also applies for “any person” who becomes aware of negligence.
Second, the L.A. Court held that the reporting requirement is not triggered by “mere suspicions”. However, little more than that is required:
[T]he triggering of the obligation to report, especially in the context of civil litigation involving professional malpractice, does not require the potential reporter to possess the quantum of proof necessary for an administrative or judicial finding of abuse or neglect. All that is required by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10 is “reasonable cause to believe.”
How exactly are citizens in this State to know when they have “reasonable cause to believe” that a child has been subjected to “negligence”? Our case law defines negligence in child welfare as recklessness, and the distinction between mere negligence and gross negligence is fact sensitive. Even among our courts, there is no agreement. Each case turns on its facts. When in doubt, individuals are more likely to report than not to – especially since the L.A. Court made a point of noting that “[f]ailure to report as required by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10 is a disorderly persons offense punishable by incarceration for up to six months. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.14, 2C:43-8.”
For certain, the L.A. Court was chagrin to learn that a physician did not so much as inquire as to how a 2 year old child accessed and ingested this potentially lethal, noxious substance. The Court has given real teeth to the mandatory reporting requirements for all citizens. However, the absence of any real teeth on the other side of the reporting spectrum – i.e., the knowing reporting of false allegations that lead to DYFS involvement – causes me great concern that the agency will continue to be the recipient of CYA-reporting, over-reacting in its highest form due to a well-intentioned, but perhaps slightly over-broad ruling.