Willful abandonment is not as talked about as physical abuse or neglect, but sadly, it's a much more common occurrence of abuse than we'd like to believe. Per the law, it refers to a parent's willful choice to have no contact with his or her child. Lack of contact may be shown through various behaviors, such as throwing the child out of the house, intentionally neglecting one's parental duties, or withholding physical, emotional and financial support. However, engaging in one of more of these behaviors does not necessarily mean that a parent has willfully abandoned the child. Allow us to illustrate using the recent Appellate decision in the case of New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. A.B.
The case involved a 16 year old, A.F., who had an infant son. Both minors lived with A.F.'s mother, A.B., in an apartment owned by A.B.'s sister, J.F. The NJ Division of Child Protection received a call that A.F. had run away, and was living with a friend. The friend's house had no electricity, which was deemed inappropriate, considering that A.F.'s infant son was also living there. According to A.B., she was concerned about her daughter and grandchild, but refused to let them back in her home, because of A.F.'s ongoing disrespect. She also stated that her sister, who owned the place, did not want her niece back, either. The Division of Child Protection wanted to proceed with an emergency removal, but the mother refused, though she had no suggestions for where else her daughter and grandchild could stay. Eventually, the case went before the trial court, which concluded that A.B. had willfully abandoned her child since she refused to allow her back into the home. In turn, she was found to be in gross negligence for abandoning both her child and infant grandchild.
The Appellate Division upheld the trial court's discretion in deciding the credibility of the evidence presented by the Division of Child Protection. They also agreed with the judge's refusal to allow testimony regarding J.F. not wanting her niece in the home, since they agreed that the sister's hearsay testimony was unreliable. However, they did not agree that the defendant's behavior met the legal definition of willful abandonment, since A.B. gave no indication that she wished to permanently cut ties with her daughter, or sign over her parental rights. That would be indicated by her refusal to consent to an emergency removal, resulting in her daughter and grandchild being placed in a resource home for the duration of the proceeding. While this may sound overly technical, it's important to understand the consequences of a willful abandonment ruling, which often results in the termination of one's parental rights. In most cases, even where the mother's behavior is highly questionable, legal severance of the ties between a parent and child is not in a child's best interest. That's why it's important for parents to fight for their rights with help from an experienced family law attorney.