You Could Face Serious Criminal Charges
Don't underestimate the power and authority of New Jersey's Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP or the Division), formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services. New Jersey's DCPP does more than protect children. If you've received a DCPP notice of investigation, it's cause for immediate concern and legal action. You could be about to face criminal charges having to do with the abuse or neglect of a child. Criminal proceedings are confusing and frightening, especially for those accused of a first-time offense. You need experienced and effective defense representation as soon as you receive a DCPP notice. Promptly retain premier New Jersey criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm for your most-effective criminal defense.
Your Child Custody May Also Be at Stake
Your prompt and effective criminal defense can also be critical to your continuing relationship with your child or children. In a criminal case relating to a DCPP proceeding, your present and future care, custody, and contact with your child or children may also be at stake. New Jersey's DCPP has the power and authority to immediately remove a child whenever it has cause to believe that the child may be at risk of abuse or neglect. If you do not take prompt action to protect all your rights when receiving a DCPP notice, you could lose child custody, parenting time, the right to make decisions about the welfare of your children, and other rights to care for and even communicate with your children. Promptly retain premier New Jersey criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm when receiving a DCPP notice of investigation so that your criminal investigation and charges do not cause you to lose your rights to custody, parenting time, and other care for your child or children.
The Agency's Primary Responsibility
The New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) serves a very real and serious purpose: protecting New Jersey children from abuse and neglect. DCPP typically does so by immediate protective removal of the child from any custody or contact with a suspected abuser. Any accusation against a parent or other caregiver has the potential to quickly lead to the removal of children from a home. But make no mistake: another way that DCPP investigations protect children is to build a case against the abusive or neglectful parent or other caretakers. The DCPP's strategy isn't simply to remove the child. It may instead be to remove the suspected child abuser, and not just out of the home by restraining order but even into jail or prison after criminal charges. DCPP's official goal isn't criminal punishment. Its mission is child protection. But criminal charges are unquestionably a powerful tool for DCPP to achieve its protective purposes.
Your Special Challenge Dealing With DCPP
New Jersey's criminal justice system is challenging and complex. Unfortunately, New Jersey's DCPP can, by the secretive way in which it operates, further complicate your challenge in facing a child abuse or neglect investigation. Society rightly recognizes its need to protect children against abuse. The DCPP must generally act swiftly and surely whenever the facts and circumstances give it grounds to do so. The agency's motto might as well be “better safe than sorry.” But that aggressive approach to investigation can make the DCPP one of the most opaque and powerful government enforcement agencies. Protect yourself against overly aggressive and even illegal and unconstitutional violations of your criminal defense rights. Retain a premier New Jersey criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm to help you deal with a DCPP investigation so that you don't lose your critical criminal defense rights.
How a DCPP Investigation Becomes a Criminal Case
On its own, DCPP does not have the power to bring criminal charges. Prosecutors bring criminal charges in the criminal courts. Family law cases are not generally criminal cases. Family law cases are civil cases in the civil courts. But DCPP often learns of abuse or neglect allegations in family law cases, whether for separation, divorce, child support, or child custody. Except when involving allegations of domestic violence or child abuse or neglect, family law cases are most often civil cases in which the parties may dispute their relative parental rights. Family law cases aren't criminal cases, but they can easily trigger criminal charges. Indeed, DCPP case workers may seek the help of police investigators to determine whether child abuse or neglect has occurred and, if so, who was responsible for it. Your early representation by attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm may help you present information and evidence in your defense of any potential criminal charges. Head off criminal charges before it's too late.
DCPP Notice to the Police
Once the police become involved, things can become much more complicated quite quickly, potentially involving criminal charges and jail time for the accused. Usually, a case worker will be the one to alert law enforcement based on the evidence from the DCPP investigation. He or she may call on the police because the facts of the case, like obvious evidence of severe child abuse or neglect, demand investigation from the police. But often, more than the child's safety is involved. A parent or caretaker may also feel threatened by the accused child abuser. In some cases, the caseworker may even feel threatened by the accused parent, or the situation may be otherwise unsafe for the case worker. DCPP cases don't have to involve domestic violence allegations. Only the child or children may be at risk. But child abuse cases can quickly turn into domestic abuse cases, leading to additional criminal charges. When you retain attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm, you get the help you need so that a bad start doesn't turn into a worse finish. Get things straight from the start.
Police Notice to DCPP
While DCPP is often the investigating agency that first contacts the police, criminal charges can also result the other way around, with the police contacting DCPP. Sometimes, a parent, caretaker, or other person who observes the child may alert law enforcement first about the potential mistreatment of the child. The police may be the first to step in. If the police determine they must arrest the parents and the child will be alone, the police will alert DCPP so that DCPP can arrange for the child's protection. DCPP will ensure that the child is out of harm's way while the parent or parents work their way through the criminal justice system on the related criminal charges. Retain attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm if you learn of a police investigation relating to potential child abuse or neglect charges against you. Don't let a police investigation turn into a battle with DCPP investigators, too.
Fighting DCPP-Related Criminal Charges
Just because the police become involved, before or after a DCPP investigation, doesn't mean a crime has been committed. But police involvement does mean a lot more scrutiny on the parent under investigation. If you are the subject of any investigation involving DCPP and the police, it's very important to remember to hold on to your emotions and behave with the utmost respect in every interaction. But a winning criminal defense involves a lot more than keeping your cool. As soon as you hear from DCPP or police, it's essential that you reach out to legal counsel who fully understands child welfare law, criminal law, and the intricacies of dealing with both the DCPP agency and the police. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have helped parents throughout New Jersey to preserve their personal freedom, parental rights, and personal reputation through a child welfare and criminal case investigation.
Protective Orders Can Impede Your Defense in DCPP Cases
Given the sensitivity and high stakes of child abuse and neglect cases, judges often severely curtail the defendant's access to the evidence that the agency, policy, and prosecutors are preparing to present. You might assume that you'll know as much about what's going on as anyone else. But if you are a criminal suspect in the case, then you may well know less than anyone else because of restraining orders the judge puts in place. You have the most at stake but the least ability to fight to preserve your stake. If you are the defendant on a criminal charge relating to a child abuse or neglect case, you will likely have no access whatsoever to the witnesses, records, and other evidence necessary for your defense.
Accessing Defense Evidence Through Counsel
Your only or best access to defense evidence will be your retained criminal defense attorney, given your likely inability to have any contact with the child or children allegedly abused or neglected or the spouse, ex-spouse, or other caretakers alleging your abuse or neglect. Only when you retain a criminal defense attorney will your attorney be able to retain private investigators and invoke court procedures to help you prepare your defense case. Your legal representation is crucial here. You should be able to participate in your defense by reviewing the evidence, but your attorney will first have to get the evidence for you to review. Judges may require court orders on behalf of parties to review key documents. Fortunately, when you retain attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm, you retain the skilled and experienced attorney services necessary to help you navigate DCPP requirements and protocol, discover evidence, review findings from an expert witness and investigator observations, and otherwise prepare an effective defense.
Gathering the Evidence
Evidence is indeed crucial in child abuse and neglect cases. Credibility can be critical in many criminal defense cases. But given the power of a simple allegation of child abuse, the outcome of these cases tends to depend more on the physical evidence than on the apparent good character of any party. Having all the relevant evidence, including physical evidence, hospital and medical records, expert evaluations and reports, witness statements, and other investigative documents, is critical. You can't simply depend on your own denials. The DCPP and police can build a child abuse or neglect case on circumstantial evidence, which can appear more powerful than the defendant's account, including the defendant's denials. A DCPP and police investigation can lead to conclusions, assertions, and opinions, even guesses and conjecture, that are wrong and not backed up by fact. But your criminal defense must be prepared to dispute those assertions. Court decisions on criminal charges of child abuse or neglect, like decisions involving child custody, visitation with parents and guardians, and supervisory guidelines, depend on the investigatory process on both sides and on the evidence each side produces. Retain New Jersey criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm to defend your DCPP-related criminal case.
When Custody Is the Main Question
Many parents rightly think about their children and their ability to provide for and protect their children, even before they think of their own interests. Attorney Lento recognizes and respects that your relationship with your child or children may be the most important thing to you. Yet think about it for a moment: you will be of little to no help to your child or children if you face a serious criminal charge of child abuse or neglect. Your criminal defense aligns with your interest in retaining child custody, parenting time, and other parental rights. Custody can and should be your main question. But just because your relationship with your child means the world to you doesn't mean that you have no other interests. Retain New Jersey criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento for your effective criminal defense, and you'll be doing you and your child or children the best you can to protect your family relationships.
Emergency Dodd Removal
Clients often ask, can DCPP really take my child away from me? The short answer is yes. Under NJSA 9:6-8:28, visible signs of abuse or neglect, imminent abuse or neglect, or the risk of abuse or neglect from legal action are all grounds for emergency removal. Should there be a report of abuse or neglect in your household, the DCPP will likely determine that your child is at imminent risk. The DCPP can then execute an emergency removal, what the courts call a Dodd removal, after the senator whose advocacy led to the legislature's adoption of DCPP legislation. So, if investigators decide that staying with you goes against your child's welfare—that abuse or neglect was severe enough to make it worse for your child to be with you rather than out of your care and custody—DCPP can remove your child. But your child's removal isn't a given just because an allegation against you is out there. Early aggressive criminal defense from attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm may make the difference not just in avoiding criminal conviction but also in retaining your parental rights.
The Imminent Risk Removal Standard
Under NJSA 9:6-8:28, imminent risk is typically the critical legal standard the DCPP must have to remove a child before hearing. But imminent risk isn't a very high standard. Imminent risk doesn't require DCPP to show that they acted in a way that hurt your child or children. DCPP may alternatively show that you simply failed to act or that you allowed conditions in and around the home that placed your child or children at risk of harm. And the harm may be either physical or mental. DCPP need not prove that your child was physically injured or could have been physically injured. Imminent risk of mental distress or harm from things like violence, deprivations, or other conditions inappropriate for children is enough for DCPP emergency removal.
Civil Court Proceedings After a Removal
New Jersey's DCPP agency doesn't have to go to court before an emergency removal. However, within two days of the removal, there must be a court hearing where DCPP will make its case. The initial removal may happen without any court action, but court action should swiftly follow. Your due process rights guarantee that a family court judge must determine whether your child's welfare is negatively impacted, specifically at imminent risk of harm, by being in your home. But that guarantee of a civil court proceeding itself creates risks for your criminal charge. Anything you say, either inside of court or outside of court, the prosecution may later use against you. You may have every right and interest in attending the hearing to challenge the removal of your children. But you had better have skilled and experienced criminal defense representation. Retain premier New Jersey criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento to do the best things possible for you at your children's removal hearing. Know and avoid the risk of criminal prosecution, even while you advocate to preserve your relationship with your children. DCPP is also required to advise the county prosecutor's office in cases serious enough to potentially warrant criminal charges. Parents, because their custodial rights are at stake, are entitled to legal counsel. Hiring an attorney can help protect those rights.
Overview of DCPP Processes
The process with DCPP is complicated and much different than other family law matters. In the course of looking for an attorney to represent you, make sure your attorney's practice consists mainly of DCPP cases rather than routine divorce, property, and custody matters. To be sure that you have a competent and effective defense, retain attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm. Don't trust your defense to a family law attorney unfamiliar with DCPP cases or to a criminal defense attorney who doesn't know family law and DCPP practices.
The DCPP Referral and State Reporting Obligations
It can be traumatic for parents and children to have a DCPP caseworker come to their home and demand entry or even immediately try to take the children. But those DCPP caseworkers who receive credible reports of suspected child abuse or neglect may have the legal obligation to do so. And New Jersey law imposes the widest child abuse reporting obligation. Some states limit the reporting obligation to certain workers like teachers and physicians who come into contact regularly with children and would have training and experience in recognizing suspected abuse. But anyone in the State of New Jersey who has reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse or acts of child abuse must report these observations or concerns to the DCPP. This reporting is known as a referral.
Centralized DCPP Reporting and Screening
For two decades, DCPP referrals have been screened centrally through a state 24/7 hotline number (1-877-NJ ABUSE). Should a reporter of suspected child abuse show up at a DCPP office or other agency location, the agency will provide the reporter with the means to make a phone call to the hotline. The State Central Registry screens hotline calls, referring qualifying calls back to local investigators depending on the nature of the call. In the triage process of screening, the first decision is whether the allegations fall into that of Child Protective Services (CPS) or Child Welfare Service (CWS). The first is more serious, meaning the allegations, if true, amount to abuse or neglect. The second means that the allegations don't warrant an investigation but that the family may require services from the state to improve the living situation. The Bureau must follow up on any report they receive, no matter how questionable it may seem.
Clients also ask, what if the person who reports me is just out to get me? Isn't that illegal? Here the short answer is no. Right now, anyone in New Jersey who makes referrals through the DCPP system making child abuse allegations gets immunity, civil and criminal, from any liability. This immunity extends to reporters who make multiple baseless referrals to DCPP. But that immunity may not extend to others whom the false reporter may be informing. Defamation liability, malicious prosecution liability, and other liability or sanctions may apply to the false reporter who tells persons or informs agencies having no need to know. Retain New Jersey criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm if you face false allegations relating to child abuse or neglect. You need criminal defense services, but you may also have other rights attorney Lento can help you enforce.
The DCPP Timeline
For the less-serious Child Welfare Services referrals, typical response times range from 72 hours to five working days. For the more-serious Child Protective Services cases that may result in emergency removal of the child and criminal charges of child abuse or neglect, the authorizing laws and rules require immediate official action, typically no more than 24 hours. After any emergency removal and hearing, the timeline is considerably longer. In a CPS referral, the DCPP worker must provide an investigatory finding within 60 days of the initial report, with the possibility of a 30-day extension if the designated caseworker is still working to substantiate credible information. The longer timeline may give your criminal defense attorney time to build a stronger defense to the removal and any anticipated charges. But it also may keep you from seeing your child or children. Retain attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm team to ensure that your matter proceeds along the best timeline for you and your child or children.
The Secrecy of the DCPP Investigation
Government authorities investigating criminal or other wrongs don't generally tell the suspect when they're coming. Doing so would ruin the element of surprise and might lead to the concealing of incriminating evidence. New Jersey law permits a DCPP investigator to retain that element of surprise. The only thing a DCPP investigator must disclose to accused parties is that an investigation into allegations of abuse has begun and general information about the accusations. The DCPP investigator or other agency officials do not need to let you know when they will visit the home, preferring the element of surprise. Nor must the DCPP officials advise you of the identity of your accuser. Retain attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm to help you discern the nature of a DCPP investigation so that you know how to proceed in protecting yourself and your relationship with your child or children.
Conduct of a DCPP Investigation
The more you know about a DCPP investigation, the better you can protect your rights and interests. The DCPP investigator's initial visit to your home may be the most important event that occurs in your entire DCPP proceeding. Be prepared because the results of that initial visit may go a long way toward determining not only your parental rights but also your criminal charges. When a DCPP investigator contacts you, the investigator will:
- Look around the home, checking on where the child sleeps and how much food, water, and clothing is on hand. They will also check for signs of relative cleanliness.
- Speak with every adult living in the home, asking questions to determine the possibility of abuse or neglect
- Talk to the child in question as well as the child's siblings, watching for telltale signs of abuse
- Potentially ask the accused to sign a release for medical records
- Potentially request drug tests if there is evidence of drug use in the home
Getting Attorney Help for Investigative Visits
When a DCPP investigator or other official first contacts you, it's vitally important that you retain an attorney skilled and experienced in DCPP matters and criminal defense as soon as possible to make sure you are aware of your rights. Contact attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm for the representation you need. Attorney Lento will help you learn about your defense rights. For example, if you are the accused or other criminal suspect, you need not and should not answer questions when DCPP investigators first approach you. You have a right against self-incrimination. But your refusal to speak can also place your child or children in jeopardy of removal. To sort out with whom to speak, when to speak, and other appropriate conditions, retain attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm. Skilled and experienced attorney advice and representation can make sure you comply with all DCPP rules and regulations—and maintain a respectful and cooperative attitude—to make the best possible case for retaining your child or children while avoiding criminal charges.
Emergency Complaints Alleging Abuse or Neglect
If, after investigating the matter, the DCPP feels they can substantiate abuse in a contest proceeding, they will communicate this conclusion to the parents or other accused parties. The DCPP will likely have already removed the child. In the event they believe the child remains at imminent risk, the Bureau can then file an emergency complaint with the New Jersey family court system. Once the Bureau files the emergency complaint, the court appoints a special lawyer to advocate for the interests of the child during the case. If the DCPP has not already removed the child, the court will order immediate removal from the home.
If DCPP Removes Your Child
The Bureau is legally bound to make every effort to reunify families should the agency remove children from the home. Agency officials should work with you to develop a strategy to meet this goal. This plan is known as the Safety Protection Plan. If you find yourself in this position, your family is probably facing many complex challenges. The DCPP will suggest some options but be sure to consider what kind of support you need and ask for it. You do not have to be passive! Work with DCPP—and your lawyer—to make sure that DCPP seriously considers alternatives, such as relatives who can care for your child. An experienced lawyer can also help enforce your rights to visitation while your child is under a removal order if the order so provides. If you do agree to leave your child in the care of someone else as part of a Safety Protection Plan, the DCPP cannot restrict your access to your child for more than ten days without taking you to court.
You may be asked to engage in programs that are designed to teach strong parenting skills and manage anger, mental health, and substance misuse issues. Take advantage of any and all resources you are offered. Not only will it help your case, but it will make you a better parent.
What are the Possible Findings From a DCPP Investigation?
The DCPP's investigation should result in findings that the authorizing law requires. The Bureau categorizes findings from an investigation into four categories. From the accused parent's standpoint, the first category is the most serious and the last category the least serious. The four categories are:
- Substantiated. The preponderance (majority) of evidence indicates an abused or neglected child, with the presence of an aggravating factor (see below). This has serious consequences, with the DCPP providing police with the details of the case and its findings and place the parent on the New Jersey Child Abuse Registry. This will show up in background checks and can restrict a parent's ability to engage in any activity involving contact with children, including any employment that involves minors, the disabled, or the elderly.
- Established. Evidence indicates abuse or neglect, but on evaluation of aggravating factors, a substantiated finding is not warranted.
- Not established. While this finding deems no preponderance of evidence of abuse or neglect, there is an indication that the child was harmed or placed at risk of harm.
- Unfounded. This category indicates that there is neither evidence demonstrating abuse nor neglect; additionally, it shows no evidence the child was harmed or placed at risk of harm.
The nature and level of your findings are critical to finding a way back to your child and putting your household back together. An experienced attorney can walk you through the implications of each category of findings and help you move forward to address concerns—which have different degrees of seriousness—with DCPP and work within the system to achieve your goal of reunion as soon as possible.
Aggravating and Mitigating Factors
Each case depends on its own facts. As we see above, the Bureau takes certain factors very seriously but also allows that many parents are ready to do whatever they can to fix a situation where they are separated from their children.
Aggravating factors are set forth as:
- The death or near-death of a child as a result of abuse and neglect
- Exposing a child to sexual activity or materials related to sexual activity
- Inflicting injuries on a child that lead to hospitalization or other significant medical attention
- A history of repeated instances of physical abuse against any child
- Failure to take reasonable action to protect a child from sexual abuse or repeated physical abuse
- Depriving a child of essential care, when the deprivation caused serious harm or created a risk of serious harm
- Parent/guardian fails to comply with court orders regarding the well-being of a child, including those related to a child safety plan or case plan
- Vulnerability of the child, including tender age, developmental delay, or disability
- Lasting physical, psychological, or emotional impact on the child
- Isolation of a child
The Bureau is also obligated to consider actions taken by parents to remediate (fix and improve) the situation. These include:
- Changes taken by the parent before the investigation is concluded to improve conditions in the household
- Extraordinary circumstances, including situational or temporary stressors that caused the parent to act in an abusive way that was out of character
- The abuse was a one-off, isolated event
- A case of very limited psychological, physical, or emotional abuse
Usually, cases conclude at this point, and parents will receive a findings letter advising on the DCPP's position, with the person who made the referral receiving the same correspondence.
If you disagree with the DCPP decision, you have the right to appeal it within 20 days and request an administrative hearing. Having an attorney represent you as soon as possible will give you support through this incredibly difficult process, keep you informed of the process and procedures, and give you the best possible shot at protecting your parental rights.
Termination of Parental Rights
Parents have about a year to remedy the circumstances that led to the initial removal of the child. If these demands are not satisfied, at this point, DCPP may choose to file a complaint petitioning for the termination of parental rights.
To do this, the Bureau must, acting in the best interests of the child, prove clearly and convincingly to a judge that:
- The safety, health, or development of the child will be in jeopardy within the bounds of a relationship with the parent
- The parent has demonstrated an unwillingness or inability to remove the child from harm's way and cannot/will not provide a stable and safe home for the child
- Leaving the placement home/resource family would cause serious and ongoing emotional or psychological distress for the child
- The Bureau has made reasonable efforts over the course of a year to provide services to help the parent remedy the circumstances which led to the original removal of the child and the child's placement outside the home, and also that the court has considered alternatives to terminating parental rights.
- Terminating parental rights will NOT do more harm than good
While in recent years, there have been some encouraging developments for parents wishing to appeal rulings on the termination of parental rights, the law remains murky. Appeals can only be successful with the assistance of an experienced lawyer with a deep understanding of DCPP and the applicable statutes.