By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled this week that authorities can seek custody of a child, even where there's no evidence of abuse or neglect.
The case involved a divorced Camden County mother of 9-year-old twin girls. In 2007, she asked New Jersey's Division of Child Protection and Permanency for help, claiming she was unable to care for the girls who had psychological and developmental disabilities and needed to be placed in residential care.
"You can turn to the Division for help, but it may come with a cost," says Diana Autin, executive director of Statewide Parent Advocacy Network of New Jersey. The group filed an amicus brief in the case.
Autin says under the court's ruling, the state can get custody of a child with behavior problems if it proves that the parent can't provide the type of services the child needs and the services are in the child's best interest. She says the division can get custody without using the state's abuse and neglect law.
"It could end with an award of custody to the division for at least six months, maybe even longer," says Autin. "We're going to encourage parents to get voluntary services from the division, because if the parent is then uncomfortable about what the parent wants to do, they can withdraw consent."
The twins' mother, identified as "I.S." in the court ruling, went to child welfare seeking help. According to court papers, the department had received more than a dozen reports, including allegations of sexual abuse, but none were substantiated. Eventually the mother told authorities the girls needed residential care, which she was unable to provide.
The court acknowledged no neglect or abuse by the mother, but gave custody to the state under New Jersey's abuse and neglect statute. After the girls got help, one daughter was returned to the mother. Custody of the second daughter was awarded to the father.
"By seeking help," says Autin, "she lost custody of one of her children."
Autin says parents who can afford the type of care a child with behavioral or psychological problems may need are unlikely to lose custody. She says the problem will arise when parents cannot afford the care and behavioral challenges become too much to bear.
But there is good news: "They won't have to go on registry as committing child abuse," says Autin. "And the state does not have unlimited power. They have to prove certain things."
Autin recommends that parents who need the state to step in get help from a lawyer or advocate.
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