The investigation into how much Daniel Schuler knew of his wife's apparent substance abuse has its roots in state law, which holds that a parent is guilty of child endangerment when he or she fails or refuses to exercise "reasonable diligence" to protect a child from abuse or neglect.
Leaving a child in the care of a parent who is known to be violent or abuse drugs "can frequently be the basis for a finding of neglect against the non-drug using parent," said Theo Liebmann, director of the child advocacy clinic at Hofstra University Law School.
Experts say such evidence typically surfaces when case workers, investigating allegations against one caretaker, discover that the other knew of the danger but did nothing. Such negligence would not automatically result in the loss of custody, unless a child was in immediate danger.
In Schuler's case, the investigation was prompted by a call from the Westchester district attorney's office after the toxicology report came out for Diane Schuler, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation. In New York, district attorneys are among the professionals classified as mandated reporters, meaning they are required to report suspected child abuse or maltreatment when they have reasonable cause to suspect it has occurred.
Dennis Nowak, a spokesman for the Suffolk Department of Social Services, said he could not comment on any specific investigations. But in general, he said, findings of neglect against parents who knew a partner's behavior could place their child at risk are not uncommon, particularly with substance abuse cases.
"Maybe it's a noncustodial parent who is not aware of the other parent's drug or alcohol abuse," Nowak said. "Other times they're still living together and the significant other had full knowledge and failed to take steps to protect the children," so they could be held responsible.
Still, it is rare for such findings to lead to criminal charges, Liebmann said. Exceptions include very high-profile or violent abuse cases, such as when Abigail Cortez of Brooklyn was sentenced in 1990 to serve a reduced manslaughter and assault charge for doing nothing while her boyfriend beat her 5-year-old daughter to death.
In Daniel Schuler's case, "it would really depend on how much the father knew about the mother's drinking, both on that day and generally," Liebmann said. "If this really was out of character, as the husband is saying, there really could be no criminal or family court case" against him.