Abuse and neglect finding for pregnant woman who tested positive for drugs set aside

TRENTON – The state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that an abuse and neglect finding can’t be sustained in the case of a pregnant woman who used drugs and then gave birth to a child who later tested positive for cocaine.

The court ruled unanimously that no finding of abuse and neglect under Title 9 can be sustained because the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services “failed to show actual harm or demonstrate imminent danger’’ to the newborn.

According to the ruling, the mother tested positive for cocaine upon admission to the hospital, and the newborn child tested positive for cocaine metabolites. The ruling also stated that the Division found the mother had tested positive for marijuana in her fifth month of pregnancy, although she denied ever using drugs.

Today’s ruling overturns findings by a trial court and then an appeals court that there was abuse and neglect. The lower courts had concluded that the mother’s use of cocaine two days before giving birth created a risk of harm to the child.

However, among other things, the Supreme Court ruled today the “language of the abuse and neglect statute reveals that it applies to a child and not a fetus.”

“Absent evidence of clear legislative intent, court decisions in New Jersey have declined to extend the reach of a statute to an unborn child when the statute refers to a ‘person’ or a ‘child.’  Because the abuse and neglect statute, by its terms, does not extend to a fetus, the law’s protection is limited to the condition of a child after birth,” the ruling stated.