Family Law

Child Abuse and Neglect: What's In a Name?

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Well, maybe not in Holland Township, New Jersey. There, if you were a Family Court judge, you might have to answer the question "What's in a name?", because at least one professional believes that the mere act of naming a child could serve as the basis for a charge of child abuse. Consider the case of three-year-old Adolph Hitler Campbell and his sisters Joyce Lynn Aryan Nation Campbell and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell.

These children, or at least their names, first became notorious in 2008 when a bakery refused to sell the family a birthday cake with Adolf Hitler Campbell's name on it. Later, in early 2009, the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) removed the children from their home. The circumstances of the removal are a bit vague, because DYFS claims it is barred by confidentiality laws from commenting on the matter - it won't even confirm that the Campbell children were involved. However, other law enforcement officials have indicated the removal was not the result of the children's names.

But could it have been? The answer depends on how the law defines the criteria for removing a child from his home.

Although each state defines these criteria somewhat differently, generally a child can be removed if the child is abused or neglected by a parent, and if removal is necessary to avoid immediate risk to the child's life or health. Also, a child protective agency does not need to prove that the child suffered an actual injury. Instead, the courts will often ask probing questions to determine if a child's physical, mental or emotional health is at risk due to parental abuse or neglect.

How Are "Abuse" and "Neglect" Defined?

The legal language is convoluted, but it boils down to this: the child can be considered abused or neglected if a parent does not provide proper supervision, or harms the child, or allows others to harm the child, or exposes the child to a substantial risk of harm. It's this last possibility that would matter in a case in which parents gave their children supposedly abusive names.

News reports quote forensic psychologist N. G. Berrill saying that naming a boy Hitler could be considered child abuse, partly because it shows that the parents themselves are acting childishly, not like responsible adults. Berrill also suggests that, "You can name your dog something weird, but [the Campbell parents] think they're making some kind of bold statement with the children, not appreciating that the children will have separate lives and will be looked at in a negative light until they're able to change their names. It is abuse."

Of course, reasonable people can have different opinions, and another psychologist might agree with little Adolf's father, Heath Campbell, who is quoted as saying, "I think people need to take their heads out of the cloud they've been in and start focusing on the future and not on the past. There's a new President and he says it's time for a change; well, then it's time for a change. They need to accept a name. A name's a name. The kid isn't going to grow up and do what [Hitler] did."

So, if you were a Family Court judge in Holland Township, you might have to decide which of these arguments is more convincing. Adolph Hitler (the leader of the Nazis, not the child in New Jersey) never had any children. If he had, we can only wonder what effect that name would have had on their lives.

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