News & Politics

NJ Supreme Court Rules That State Has the Burden of Proof in Child Abuse Cases

(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

In a positive move, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that parents in family court do not have to prove that they did not abuse their children. The burden of proof instead rests with the state to prove its case. It may seem unbelievable that it has ever been any other way, but in many states family courts have different rules of evidence than criminal courts and parents are automatically assumed guilty until proven innocent. This is one of the major ways that family courts deny families their due process.

The New Jersey Monitor reported:

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday family courts cannot require parents affirmatively prove they did not abuse their children, sending a case involving alleged child abuse back to family court.

The case stemmed from an appeal involving two parents accused of injuring their baby by shaking. The family had medical experts who said the condition came from epileptic seizures, while child protective services found experts to claim that the baby was abused.

The trial court found the child’s injuries indicated abuse, which the Division of Child Protection and Permanency inferred could only have been enacted by the infant’s parents.

The burden of evidence then shifted to the parents, who were tasked with proving they did not allow their child to be injured or that they did not inflict the injuries themselves.

Neither testified, and both were found responsible for the alleged abuse and neglect, though the court never identified specifically who caused the injuries.

The Supreme Court found that the lower court judges had erred in shifting the burden of evidence to the parents. Family courts operate under the preponderance of evidence standard, which is a much lower standard than criminal courts operate under. Under the preponderance of evidence standard, the state only has to convince the judge that the defendant is more than 50% likely to have committed the offense.

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Many people criticize family courts for using such a low standard of proof when the consequences can be the loss of one’s children, which the California Supreme Court has described as “the family law equivalent of the death penalty [In re Smith].” Further, the power to terminate parental rights is an “awesome power” and “[b]ecause of the sacredness of parental rights a higher standard of proof, that of ‘at least clear and convincing evidence,’ is required before [a child] can be judicially taken away” (Champagne v. Welfare, Nevada Supreme Court). Despite these rulings and guidance, family courts across the country continue to operate with extreme callousness in relation to parents’ rights, often ignoring due process.

Perhaps New Jersey will start a trend of restraining the power of civil courts over parental rights.