Addiction is one of the leading causes of broken families, often resulting in divorce when parents cannot agree on how to deal with their troubled child. Further complications arise when that child reaches the age of majority, and the non-custodial parent requests a termination of support. This brings up a fundamental dilemma between accepted medical knowledge and the state's current laws. It has long been accepted that addictions to narcotics, alcohol, etc., is a mental disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), it's a brain disease manifested by compulsive use. Long-term use of addictive substances literally changes the wiring of one's brain to where the addict exhibits many classic symptoms of a mental disorders.
New Jersey laws, however, state that “a child's abuse of or addiction to alcohol or controlled substances” is not “a severe mental or physical incapacity”. If you're confounded by this contradiction, you are not alone. The classification of a mental of physical incapacity is crucial, since it determines whether a child should be legally emancipated for the purpose of on-going financial support. Most of these cases involve children who were born with, or acquired serious disabilities that prevent them from attaining self-sufficiency. But alcoholism and substance abuse is a whole different category, with so many factors and variations. It can even be argued that some children are “born with it”, if they're born to addicted mothers. Even if they weren't, they're more or less trapped after even just one hit of highly addictive narcotics such as heroin and crack cocaine.
Parents and adult children who are hearing this for the first time may be shocked, and perhaps offended, that the law seems to consider addicts as “throwaways”. After all, teenagers do foolish things all the time, causing accidents and injuries that may have life-long consequences. For example, if an 18 year old became paralyzed from drag racing, the courts are very likely to order some form of long-term support. But if that same child experimented with drugs at a party, aren't they suffering from a mental/ physical incapacity when they're full blown addicts? Then again, it's hard not to sympathize with parents who have paid for counseling and rehab on top of supporting their teens for years, only for their children to steal from them or disappear with no notice. It's even more frustrating when addicts refuse to get help, or cause legal and financial problems for the entire family.
As you can see, this is complex, heart-breaking issue. Even as a legal issue, it's heart breaking for attorneys to be on either side of the fence, knowing that current laws do not classify substance abuse as a mental/ physical incapacity. However, dependent children can still request support for other qualifying issues, so it's important to discuss your rights and legal options with a qualified attorney. For more information on child support and legal emancipation in New Jersey, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.