April 23, 2014

Court Takes Expansive View of Duty to Report Child Abuse

Last week the New Jersey Appellate Division issued an opinion in the case of L.A., as Parent and Legal Guardian of S.A., a minor, and L.A., individually, v. New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services, et al.  In that case, L.A., as guardian of S.A., sued an emergency room physician for malpractice, based on an allegation that the physician should have filed a report of child abuse with the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS, now known as the Division of Child Protection and Permanency), and failed to do so.  The case involved a child who was taken to the emergency room after ingesting cologne.  The motion judge in the Law Division granted summary judgment in favor of the physician, finding that no reasonable jury could conclude that there was "reasonable cause to believe that child abuse had been committed" against the child.

The Appellate Division overruled the motion judge, and held that the medical condition of the child required the physician to report the case to DYFS as potential child abuse.  The statute at issue requires any person having “reasonable cause” to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse, to immediately report the situation to DYFS.  The Appellate Division held that injury arising from reckless or grossly or wantonly negligent conduct is sufficient to constitute child abuse and must be reported to DYFS.  The court then concluded that a reasonable jury could conclude that a two year old child’s ingestion of cologne was the result of reckless or grossly or wantonly negligent conduct, and therefore summary judgment should not have been granted in favor of the physician.

It is clear that in the circumstances of this case, the court has imposed an obligation on providers to report an expansive view of potential child abuse cases based upon the presentation of a child to a provider.  While this involved presentation in an ER, there is no reason to believe that this kind of expansive view of a medical condition requiring reporting to DYFS does not also apply to a presentation of a minor in any other health care setting such as a private physician’s office.

One can conclude from reading this case that any child presented for care, who has swallowed any inappropriate liquid, would trigger a requirement of reporting to DYFS.  This holding obviously expands the exposure of providers to both the civil and criminal aspects of the reporting requirements to DYFS.

© 2014 Giordano, Halleran & Ciesla, P.C. All Rights Reserved

About the Author

Frank R. Ciesla, Giordano Law Firm, Health Care Attorney

Mr. Ciesla is chair of the firm's Health Care Law Practice Area. His practice is primarily devoted to Health Care and Government Contracts Law. He counsels clients on legal developments facing healthcare providers in the modern health care environment. Firm clients include hospitals, nursing homes, physicians and physician groups, individual practice associations, home health agencies, ambulance carriers and industry-wide associations.


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