Cape May County DCP&P Attorney

The State of New Jersey protects the well-being of minor children through the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P), formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services and often referred to as “the Division.” DCP&P is an office of the state's Department of Children and Families and is responsible for keeping children safe. To carry out this duty, they have the authority to remove children from their homes.

If you live in Cape May County and are being investigated by DCP&P, the time to make sure your parental and due process rights are protected is now. A DCP&P investigation can lead to a temporary or permanent loss of custody over your children and possibly even criminal charges. The Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team can help ensure your rights are protected immediately. Call us at 888-535-3886 or contact us online today.

The Dangers of Child Abuse

No one debates the seriousness of child abuse and neglect. From the immediate impact on the child's well-being to potential long-term effects, children who have experienced abuse or neglect also have increased risks of criminality and substance abuse. To combat child abuse and neglect, the Division is charged with protecting children from the allegation phase to the end of the process—a process that isn't designed to be fair to the accused.

To aid the Division in its mission, the public is encouraged to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect, which the Division is required by law to investigate. Reports of abuse can be anonymous and come from anyone who claims they saw abuse or neglect. The Division's charge is to investigate every report, though the process can be complicated and less than transparent.

The Division's Investigation Process

The Division focuses on the well-being of the child, so their investigation aims to determine whether the person implicated in an allegation poses a threat to the safety and welfare of the child; the investigative process is not intended to be impartial. If you are under investigation, it is important to understand that the Division is not an arm of law enforcement. Their focus is not on determining whether or not a crime was committed, although a Division investigation can lead to criminal charges if the case is referred to police.

Because the Division is not law enforcement, their investigations do not follow a traditional criminal investigation path. In a criminal investigation, for example, law enforcement is legally required to inform you of your right to remain silent and that if you exercise that right, your silence cannot be used against you. This legal requirement does not exist for Division investigations, and, in fact, if you stay silent while under investigation for possible child abuse or neglect, your unwillingness to speak could indicate to an investigator that you have done something wrong.

Defending Yourself in Division Investigations

If staying silent isn't advisable in Division investigations, what should you say, to whom, and when? This is where the dedicated attorneys of the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team come in. From the moment you find out that you are being investigated by the Division, it is crucial to have legal guidance from a team with extensive experience in Division investigations.

We want to help make sure that your rights are protected through the process and that your parental rights and reputation remain intact. Division investigations, remember, are not looking out for your best interests but rather focus on the well-being of the child. If there is some uncertainty as to whether abuse or neglect has occurred, out of an abundance of caution, the Division will not hesitate to remove a child from the home temporarily or permanently.

While it may be tempting to believe that if you've done nothing wrong, nothing adverse against your custody can happen, that assumption is false. If the Division has opened an investigation on you, your custodial rights as a parent or guardian are already in jeopardy. It is critical that you understand how important it is to have experienced legal representation from the get-go.

Division Investigations and Criminal Charges

While the Division isn't a law enforcement agency that can bring criminal charges against you, that doesn't mean that you are not in danger of having criminal charges filed against you. Once an investigation begins, the caseworker or investigator follows wherever the evidence takes them, and if that leads them to believe you may have committed child abuse or neglect or even another crime, they could refer your case to Cape May County Law Enforcement, who may choose to conduct their own investigation. Two ongoing investigations against the same individual are not unheard of.

This possibility reinforces the need for you to have the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team on your side as soon as possible. A home visit can occur at any time, without warning, with the rationale that those under investigation don't have the chance to create a narrative or get rid of evidence. Your rights should be protected from even this earliest stage of the investigation—and certainly, before you answer any questions from Division investigators.

Note that even if the Division refers your case to Cape May County Law Enforcement, the original investigation into child abuse and neglect allegations will continue.

How Division Investigations Work

A home visit is usually the first step in a division investigation. A case worker or investigator will show up to your home, often unannounced, to determine whether the home provides an overall safe environment for the child. If the home is found to be unfit for a child, they will also determine whether they will refer the case for criminal investigation and potential charges.

A Division's home visit generally consists of the following, though they may also undertake other steps:

  • Assess the home for cleanliness and fitness
  • Determine whether the child has adequate food, water, and other essentials
  • Interview you as well as any other adults in the home
  • Interview the child and any siblings or youths in the home

During the initial home visit, the case worker or investigator may request that you sign a medical release form for the child. This form permits a medical professional to examine the child and review the child's medical records. If evidence of alcohol abuse or illegal substance use is uncovered during the home visit, the Division may also request that you submit to drug or alcohol testing.

How to Handle Home Visits and Division Investigations

Keeping in mind that Division investigations are not impartial and focus on the best interests and well-being of the child, remember that getting legal representation on your side as soon as possible is your best chance to defend yourself against child abuse or neglect allegations. Just because you're under investigation doesn't mean you've done anything wrong—and it also doesn't mean you don't have any rights.

Maneuvering through a Division investigation can be tricky, though, because while defending your rights, you don't want to give investigators any reason to believe you have done something you're trying to hide. Maintaining your parental rights is your utmost priority, and your choice of attorney can mean the difference between keeping your child and losing custody temporarily or permanently.

The custody of your child is too important to try to handle the Division investigation process yourself. Our attorneys on the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team are prepared to fight for you as we make the strongest case possible for maintaining custody of your child.

The Possible Outcomes of a Division Investigation

The Division's caseworker or investigator will consider all the information they gathered and make a final determination on your case. The Division's categories, from the worst-case scenario as a parent being investigated to the best, are as follows:

  • Substantiated: This determination means that the Division has found the allegation of child abuse or neglect has been substantiated by evidence they uncovered along with an aggravating circumstance, explained more in depth below. The Division refers substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect as well as their collected evidence to Cape May County Law Enforcement for consideration of criminal charges. Additionally, your name will go on the New Jersey Child Abuse Registry, which is a matter of public record. This means it will come up on background checks or employment screenings, and it also severely restricts your ability to have contact with not only children but also elderly or disabled persons. This determination could have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences for you.
  • Established: A step below substantiated, a determination that child abuse or neglect has been established means that the Division has concluded that there is, indeed, child abuse or neglect, but there is no presence of aggravating circumstances.
  • Not Established: With this determination, the Division has found insufficient evidence of child abuse or neglect, although the child was exposed to some danger or harm.
  • Unfounded: This determination is the best-case scenario for you in a Division investigation; it means that there was no evidence of harm to the child or that you put the child in danger. The caseworker or investigator concludes that the allegations of child abuse and neglect were unfounded.

Your ability to retain or regain custody of your child depends greatly on the outcomes of the Division investigation. Whatever the outcome, our team of experienced attorneys can guide you through the next steps in the process, potentially even helping you retain or regain parental rights in the case of an adverse outcome.

Aggravating and Mitigating Factors

When the Division determines that an investigation is “substantiated,” it means there was an aggravating factor, raising the level of the abuse allegation to a potential crime and making it the most serious category of cases. If your case has been ruled substantiated, retaining or regaining parental rights can be extremely challenging. Possible aggravating factors include:

  • Death or near-death of the child connected to the abuse or neglect uncovered during the investigation
  • Child's exposure to sexually explicit materials or unlawful sexual activity
  • A history of abuse against children by you, which may include children not in your custody
  • Denial of essential medical care for the child that caused or could have caused significant harm to the child
  • Failure to adequately protect the child from physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Failure to abide by court orders concerning the child's care or to adhere to a child safety plan
  • The potential for long-term physical, psychological, or emotional damage to the child
  • Child who, because of age, disability, or developmental capabilities, has an elevated level of vulnerability or susceptibility to abuse

On the opposite end of the spectrum from aggravating factors are the mitigating factors that the Division is required to acknowledge and take into consideration. These mitigating factors can prove extremely important as you try to retain or regain your parental rights. Some mitigating factors include:

  • Affirmative steps you took to fix the situation before the investigation concluded, such as removing an adult with a substance abuse disorder from the home or cleaning up a previously unfit home
  • Exigent and unusual circumstances, such as a traumatic event or extreme financial troubles that led to the act of negligence or abuse that is otherwise out of character
  • Evidence suggesting the abuse or neglect was likely to have been an isolated incident and unlikely to happen again
  • Abuse or neglect that was found was extremely limited in scope and severity.

In the presence of mitigating factors, we can work with the Division to create a child safety plan that would allow you to retain custody of your children.

Your Right to Appeal

If the Division finds against you, you have the right to file an appeal within 20 days of receiving the decision. While the appeals process can be complicated, the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team can guide you and ensure that all of your paperwork is in order and filed on time.

Permanent Termination of Parental or Custodial Rights

If the Division orders the child temporarily removed from your custody or the suspension of your parental rights, you have one year to remedy the conditions that led to their decision. If you don't accomplish this, the Division may take steps to permanently terminate your parental rights, which requires the approval and signature of a Cape May County judge. To terminate your parental rights permanently, the Division must show:

  • You have not remedied the conditions that led to the Division's decision, and you lack the ability or desire to do so
  • A continuing relationship between you and the child would be harmful for their emotional, physical, or psychological development
  • Removing the child from their current placement would cause them long-term, continued emotional or psychological harm
  • The Division has made good-faith efforts to help you remedy the conditions that led to the decision and has no further alternatives
  • The termination of your parental rights will not cause harm that outweighs the benefits of termination

Fighting for Your Parental Rights

While it's scary to be facing an investigation by the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, it's not hopeless. Although the Division has the authority to terminate your parental rights, it doesn't have to get to that point, and you can fight back every step along the way.

Get the right legal representation on your side now. The Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team is well-resourced and ready to defend your parental rights. Call us at 888-535-3686 or contact us online today to make sure both you and your child are protected.

​​​Contact The Lento Law Firm Today

When it comes to criminal defense cases, you need the right person in your corner. To learn more about how Mr. Lento can help you, call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686. or contact him online.

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