NJ High Court Upholds State's 'Family Cap' Welfare Law

July 13, 2004

TRENTON -- Attorneys and advocates for women and children expressed disappointment with a ruling today by the New Jersey Supreme Court that the state can deny benefits to children born into families already receiving welfare. The groups vowed to hold the state to its promise to insure the "health and safety of families in need."

"We are extremely disappointed with today's decision upholding the Child Exclusion provision of New Jersey's welfare law," said Lenora Lapidus, Director of the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued the case before the court in January.  "However, we are somewhat heartened by the court's finding that the state must stand by its guarantee to alleviate the economic hardships of families on welfare."

While finding the law constitutional, the court's 30-page opinion, authored by Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, concluded that the reproductive rights of New Jersey women were not threatened because of state's assurance that it would "insure the health and safety of families in need."

"While we believe that the evidence showed that the very survival of families is in fact threatened by the child exclusion law, we intend to hold the state to this promise," Lapidus said. "We will be vigilant to assure that the state keeps that promise, and if it does not, we pledge to be back in court fighting for the rights, and indeed, the very lives of our clients."

Today's ruling came in the class action lawsuit Sojourner A. v. New Jersey Department of Human Services, which was filed on behalf of a group of women and their children by the ACLU, the ACLU of New Jersey, the NOW Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the law firm of Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione in an attempt to overturn New Jersey's Child Exclusion policy, also known as the "family cap" law.

Under the federal welfare reform law passed in 1996, states have the option of denying welfare benefits to any child born into a family already receiving welfare. At least 20 states have already exercised this option; New Jersey enacted it as part of its "Work First" welfare program.

In their lawsuit, attorneys for the plaintiffs pointed to evidence that the law has caused many poor women to seek abortions. Despite today's decision, they said, the law remains unwise public policy.  In arguments earlier this year before the court, Lapidus underscored this fact by citing a study conducted by Rutgers University which found that in the first four years after the law was enacted, there were 14,000 fewer births-and 1,400 more abortions-among women receiving welfare in New Jersey than would have occurred in the absence of the Child Exclusion law.

"New Jersey's Family Cap Law punishes the child because the state disapproves of the behavior of the mother, said Sherry Leiwant, Senior Staff Attorney with NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.  "As a result, some needy children are denied basic necessities of life."

The decision in the case is available online at: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/

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