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In a closely watched case, a state appeals court handed parents a rare victory recently when it ruled that a woman whose boyfriend brutally assaulted her in front of one of her children was not guilty of neglecting the children by exposing them to domestic violence. The decision gives domestic violence victims a strong legal tool that can help them in Family Court cases, experts say.

The mother in the case, Michele Garcia, was among the plaintiffs in the 2001 class-action federal lawsuit Nicholson v. Williams. Federal judge Jack Weinstein declared the city child welfare agency's policy of removing children from battered women unconstitutional in January 2002. However, before the Nicholson ruling, Manhattan Family Court judge Susan Larabee had already issued a separate neglect finding against the mother. Larabee ruled that the children were neglected-not just due to the domestic violence, but also because the mother failed to subsequently cooperate with an ACS caseworker.

But on February 25, the Appellate Division overturned Larabee's decision and ruled that a mother who is unexpectedly attacked shouldn't be faulted for exposing her children to domestic violence. And, in an added victory for parents, the court found that failing to cooperate with ACS is not in itself grounds for a neglect finding. In other words, the appeals court ruled that a parent who hasn't done anything wrong is not legally required to cooperate with ACS.

The ruling is a huge win for parents, who typically face an uphill battle against ACS in Family Court, say advocates and attorneys for victims of domestic violence. “We're celebrating nonstop-let's just put it that way,” said Jill Zuccardy, one of Garcia's lawyers.

The decision is also significant because it clarifies that a mother can't be found neglectful based on a single incident of domestic violence, family court experts say. “It sends a clear signal, for the first time,” says Chris Moore, another of Garcia's lawyers, “that when charging a parent with neglecting a child by exposing a child to domestic violence, ACS must first determine whether that parent is to blame for the incident of domestic violence.” The appeals court acknowledged, says Moore, that Garcia “could not have predicted and thus could not have prevented the violence.”

But, although this case is a decisive victory for Garcia, the court made a distinction between cases where there is only one incident of violence and cases where there's a history of violence, ruling that battered women can still be found to have neglected their children if there has been ongoing violence in the home.

In a prepared statement, city attorney Ron Sternberg said ACS was “disappointed” by the reversal of the neglect finding and is considering whether to appeal, according to Sternberg.

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