Son says germaphobe dad treated him like ‘caged animal’ — NJ court says not abuse
When a 10-year-old boy told a school counselor that he did not want to see his father anymore because he was being confined to his room, it started a legal process that saw the father lose custody of his child.
After the father appealed, however, a panel of judges this week determined that the father did abuse his son.
At the time of his first complaint, the boy, identified only as "Adam" in order to protect his identity, told investigators that since his sister's birth, he had been limited to what he could do in the father's house.
Calling his dad a "germaphobe," the boy said his father was concerned he would get the newborn sick.
He said he had to use a cowbell to alert his father and stepmom when he needed something at his house. The boy also said he was not allowed to eat outside his bedroom and that his dad would leave his meals outside the door, which he could get when the man was a safe distance away.
The boy also claimed that he was mostly limited to touching the baby's feet to keep from getting her sick, and also had to shower and change his clothes as soon as he got home from school. All of this, according to the boy, made him feel like a "caged animal."
According to the appellate decision this week, the same investigator who talked to Adam also talked to the father and stepmother who, she said, confirmed the allegations. She also talked to the baby's pediatrician who, she said, told her the parents were "extremely cautious" about the baby's health.
One month after the boy talked to the school, a court order granted his mother physical custody with the father allowed supervised visits if the boy wanted to see him.
During the court hearing, Sean Conlon, a social worker who had evaluated the boy, said he had sustained "some" emotional abuse because of the way he was treated by his father. Conlon said the boy believed his father was "not proud of him" and "cursed on occasion," according to the appellate decision.
The boy changed his testimony during the court proceedings, testifying on closed circuit television that he was only confined to his room when he was sick and the week after. He said he had only used the bell on a handful of occasions and that when he was not sick he ate dinner at the table with the family, although he was required to sit away from his dad out of fear of getting him sick.
Also in his testimony, the boy said he only had to stay in his room if he did not do his homework or was being punished, which the appellate decision says went against his initial statements that he was mostly confined to his room. The boy also said he would watch television at the house, and without a television in his room the appellate decision says it was further proof that there was no confinement.
The father testified that the boy was not confined to his room unless he was sick or punished. During one instance when the boy had a bad cold, the dad said he was not allowed to open the fridge, use the remote control for the television or touch the doorknob of the nursery.
The dad also testified that his son was "defiant" about some of the rules, including kissing his sister's hand while he was ill. The baby would then put her hand in her mouth, which concerned the father.
The Family Court judge found the testimony of the boy, the investigator, and the social worker credible, but did not believe the father to be a credible witness. The judge found the father had "abused and neglected the child by isolating him," whether he was sick or healthy at his house.
The judge also took issue with the boy having to shower when he got home from school, as well as having to sit away from his father at the dinner table, and the other consequences the boy had reported.
In his appeal, the father said there had been no proof of abuse or neglect of the boy, and also faulted the judge for not recusing herself after holding "an improper ex parte meeting" with the boy, which he said was a "prejudicial error."
In its decision, the appellate panel says there were clear differences in the stories the boy told the investigator and the social worker from what he described during the court proceedings.
"Certainly, what the child reported during his testimony would not have merited a finding of abuse and neglect," the appellate judges said in reversing the Family Court decision. "Confining a child to his bedroom because he is sick, being disciplined, or needs to complete a task such as homework, is not a grossly or wantonly negligent act."
Not only were the actions taken by the father not abusive or neglectful, but the appellate decision says it was "so eminently obvious an analysis or discussion on this point is unwarranted."
In addition, the steps taken by the stepmother and father were even more understandable when the boy was sick for fear of getting the newborn sick, particularly after getting advice from their pediatrician, the appellate decision says.
"The measures these new parents implemented were consistent with this advice, aimed at reducing the spreading of germs in an effort to protect the baby," this week's decision says. "More important, none of these measures were so unduly burdensome that it can be said the father was grossly or wantonly negligent in his care of this child."
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com