Poverty Is Not Synonymous With Neglect: The Impact of T. Doe v. G.D.

Poverty, a circumstance often beyond one's control, can unfairly tilt the scales in child welfare investigations in New Jersey – leading to heartbreaking separations and legal battles. However, challenges of limited income, housing instability, friends or family members who cannot provide a support network, and lack of access to essential services do not indicate a lack of love or commitment to one's children. Parents may find themselves trying to explain why their home is not adequately heated, why there's not enough food on the table, or why medical appointments have been missed – not out of disregard for their children's well-being, but because they can't afford to make ends meet. These are not signs of a lack of love but symptoms of a broader societal issue that requires understanding and support, not judgment.

Although poverty can unfortunately result in child welfare investigations, New Jersey law does not allow DYFS to remove your children solely based on your income status. If DFYS is conducting a DCP&P investigation that is exclusively based on your income status, the law is on your side. Contact the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team today. Together, we can craft a strategized defense suited to your family's circumstances and ensure you are treated fairly and equally under the law. Call us at (888) 535-3686 for a confidential conversation or use.

T. Doe v. G.D.: The Facts

T. Doe v. G.D. involved a minor born to a 17-year-old unmarried mother who was impoverished and struggled to care for the minor's basic needs.
146 N.J. Super. 419, 432 (App. Div. 1976). DYFS removed the minor based on child abuse and neglect. The minor remained in foster care (substitute care) services for a year before returning to the mother's care. The mother, who was still a teenager at the time, still struggled to financially provide for the minor, leading to a second removal and foster care placement.

To support the assertion that the minor was neglected, DYFS argued that the child was "filthy" and "had dirty clothes." The minor and mother, who relocated often, landed in cramped living conditions with eight other individuals, a fact that DYFS argued pointed to the family's instability. The mother also struggled to provide adequate food for the minor, who was not on target for growth weight.

Although the court noted that the mother depended on welfare assistance to provide shelter, food, and clothing, it nevertheless determined that the mother was under a parental legal obligation to provide adequate housing. In sum, the court determined that parental neglect may result in instances where a parent cannot provide adequate housing, regardless of their financial capabilities or resources.

The Appeal

The mother appealed the decision to the Appellate division. In the court's thorough analysis of the case, the court examined whether inadequate housing, cramped sleeping conditions, or dirty clothes fell under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8, noting that instances of abuse or neglect examples:

  • "The child has a physical, mental, or emotional condition that is either impaired or in imminent danger of being impaired.
  • "Such impairment is or would be the result of the parent's failure to exercise a minimum degree of care in supplying the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, medical or surgical care." And;
  • "Even though financially able to do so or, through offered aid, is able to do so."

Applying the facts of the mother's case, the court determined that the mother's failure to provide adequate fare was not the result of her "failure to exercise a minimum degree of care" but instead due to her impoverished state. The court went even further and noted that if New Jersey were to view poverty or income status as a "failure" by a parent, it would result in the "mass transfers of children from ghettos and disadvantaged areas into more luxurious living accommodations" as well as the "destruction of the natural parental bond."

The Appellate court further dismissed DYFS' argument that the mother failed to provide the child with "intellectual stimulation." Instead, the court pointed to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21 (c) (4) (a), which addresses concerns about truancy issues with school-aged children, not preschool infants.

The Lasting Impact of T. Doe v. G.D. in New Jersey Child Welfare Cases

Doe v. G.D. ushered in protections for low-income families, holding that child abuse or neglect charges should not be solely attributed to a family's economic status or struggles. Even more, the New Jersey child welfare laws are foundational to protecting children, not the imposition of punitive and discriminatory measures for families facing financial hardship.

Although there may be instances where poverty and another basis for neglect are present, such as domestic violence or substance abuse, DYFS must prove that the basis for their involvement is due to deliberate acts of neglect or abuse towards a child rather than a simultaneously occurring financial hardship. The goal of DYFS, the court, and the entire New Jersey Child Welfare System should always be to keep children with their parents if doing so is not harmful to their well-being. DYFS can help financially strapped families by assisting parents in receiving services such as federal assistance, low-income housing, food, clothes, and healthcare.

What Is Considered Neglect in New Jersey?

Child neglect refers to a parent or caregiver's failure to provide necessary care, supervision, or support for a child's well-being. Neglect most often occurs in the following instances.

Physical Neglect

Physical neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to provide their children with essential physical needs, most often things such as proper nutritional food, clothing, housing, and access to medical care. Physical neglect can also encompass various forms of abandonment if a parent leaves their child for extended periods without appropriate supervision. In these instances, children may be unable to cook for themselves, drive themselves to receive medical care, etc.

Although the line may seem thin between distinguishing lack of proper care and income, the laws on physical neglect apply when a parent willfully fails to exercise their parental duties. For example, a parent who can work but is home due to substance abuse issues or a parent who can afford proper groceries but fails to provide adequate food in the house, etc.

Emotional Neglect

Emotional neglect can occur in instances where a parent fails to meet their child's emotional needs through failure to provide the proper emotional support, love, and affection. Emotional neglect can occur when a parent unfairly discriminates or punishes one child over another and fails to ensure that the child receives proper support after traumatic experiences such as the death of a loved one, sexual abuse, etc. Parents can also fail to provide for their children's emotional needs through constant disparaging remarks, insults, and verbal abuse.

Educational Neglect

As discussed above, educational neglect references the chronic truancy of school-aged children. Parents or caregivers must ensure that their child receives proper education through regular attendance in public or private schools or appropriate homeschool methods.

Medical Neglect

A parent or caregiver can fail to provide for a child's medical needs if they fail to arrange care for serious health conditions, injuries, or illnesses. Medical neglect can also occur in cases where a parent or caregiver lies about a child's medical status or unintentionally seeks unneeded medical care and treatment, resulting in harmful side effects for the child.

Dangerous Environments

Danger environments can include a wide variety of circumstances ranging from exposing a child to criminal activity like illegal drug use/sales, prostitution, and gun violence. Dangerous environments can also extend to hazardous conditions within the home, such as unsecured doors and windows, medicine or other hazardous cleaning chemicals that are not appropriately stored out of reach, exposed wires, dangerous animals, excessively cluttered homes, etc. A dangerous environment can also occur when a parent fails to protect their child from a person with a known sexually predatory history or violent tendencies.

Justice for Families, Regardless of Financial Status

For parents walking this path, knowing there is hope and avenues for support and legal recourse is crucial. The law is a tool for justice and advocacy. Together, we can navigate this journey and build a case that reflects the truth of your circumstances. We believe that poverty is not neglect and that every parent, regardless of financial circumstances, has the right to raise their children in love and dignity.

If you're a parent in New Jersey facing child abuse allegations based on your financial conditions, the battle might seem uphill, but remember, the strength of your love and commitment to your children can make all the difference. With a compassionate approach, in-depth legal knowledge, and a commitment to your family, our Criminal Defense Team can help you build a foundation for protecting your parental rights and building your family's future. Contact us today by calling (888) 535-3686 or using our online contact form.

​​​Contact The Lento Law Firm Today

When it comes to criminal defense cases, you need the right person in your corner. To learn more about how Mr. Lento can help you, call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686. or contact him online.

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