DCPP Authority to Remove Children
New Jersey's Division of Child Protection and Permanency, or DCPP investigates child abuse and neglect allegations. DCPP caseworkers visit the home, observe the child, and interview the parent or guardian alleged to have committed the abuse or neglect. DCPP caseworkers may also communicate with police, medical personnel, school personnel, and other witnesses to the alleged child abuse or neglect. The result may be to remove the allegedly abused child from the home while state DCPP officials pursue a court proceeding to place the child in foster care and potentially terminate parental rights.
DCPP's Federal and State Obligations to Preserve the Family
But DCPP owes families a statutory obligation to try to keep the family together. The New Jersey legislature recognizes the critical role that families play in the upbringing of children. New Jersey's Department of Children and Families even maintains a Keep Families Together Program for families facing homelessness or other severe challenges due to a lack of housing and services. New Jersey Statute Section 9:6B-4(a) thus prohibits the state from removing a child from the home before the state "has made every reasonable effort, including the provision or arrangement of financial or other assistance and services as necessary, to enable the child to remain in his home." Federal law imposed under 42 USC Section 671(a)(15) requires states to uphold that commitment if they are to receive federal funding. In short, DCPP caseworkers may first attempt measures short of removing the child to address potentially manageable abuse and neglect risks.
Child Safety Protection Plans in DCPP Cases
And that's where a Child Safety Protection Plan comes in. When a DCPP caseworker determines that the child's safety does not require immediate removal, the caseworker may instead develop, propose, negotiate, and adopt a Child Safety Protection Plan. Managing abuse risks isn't simply a matter of telling the parents what to do and trusting that they'll do it. Instead, the DCPP caseworker will want something in writing that the caseworker can later point to and enforce if necessary. That document is the Child Safety Protection Plan. Once signed by the parent or parents suspected of child abuse or neglect, the Child Safety Protection Plan becomes the legal framework around which the caseworker can determine whether the parent or parents have addressed the abuse and neglect concerns sufficiently to retain the child.
Child Safety Protection Plans in Reunification Cases
A Child Safety Protection Plan can likewise play a role when a caseworker does remove the child from the home temporarily with court review and supervision, but the caseworker recommends, and the court determines that reunification is safe under the Protection Plan's provisions. A Protection Plan may have terms that the parent must meet before reunification and additional terms that the parent must meet or maintain after reunification. A parent who meets a Protection Plan's provisions may regain and then retain the child's care and custody, reunifying the family in the home.
Child Safety Protection Plan Probability
Chances are good that if your DCPP caseworker finds evidence of abuse or neglect, even questionable evidence of only minor abuse or neglect, you will face some form of Child Safety Protection Plan. New Jersey's Department of Children and Families offers a Parents Handbook providing, "During the first contact with you and throughout your involvement with CP&P, the worker will assess the safety of the child in your care. If the worker identifies safety factors, you will be asked to take steps to ensure the child's safety and to sign a Safety Protection Plan." Child Safety Protection Plans are often the first tool toward which a DCPP caseworker reaches when attempting to move a questionable case forward toward disposition.
Negotiation of Child Safety Protection Plans
In theory, the caseworker does not impose the Child Safety Protection Plan. In theory, the Plan is instead something that the parties negotiate. At least, the parent's signature on the Child Safety Protection Plan is supposed to indicate that the parent has voluntarily accepted the Plan's terms, believing that the parent can meet those terms to retain or regain the child's care and custody. But in practice, parents suspected of abuse may see little choice but to sign what the DCPP caseworker presents. When a parent faces serious and credible abuse allegations, the parent may perceive little choice but to do as the DCPP caseworker demands.
Ulterior Child Safety Protection Plan Purposes
DCPP caseworkers generally have good character and attempt to deploy that good character to do their jobs as best they can. But they can also have difficult jobs to do. And they nearly always must walk a fine line between state protections and parental rights. Child Safety Protection Plans draw that fine line. And in drafting the Child Safety Protection Plan, the DCPP caseworker may determine to draw that fine line in ways that increase the caseworker's power to remove the child. The parent whom DCPP accuses of abuse may feel as if the caseworker isn't playing fair in negotiating the Child Safety Protection Plan. The parent may instead feel that the Child Safety Protection Plan is not a tool for family unity but a trap for family dissolution.
Increasing State Removal Powers
Indeed, Child Safety Protection Plans routinely do increase the state's removal powers. Without a Child Safety Protection Plan in place, the DCPP caseworker must gather and present evidence proving child abuse or neglect to the legal standard. That proof may be difficult to acquire. The parent may also be able to successfully challenge the credibility of that proof, especially when the parent retains the Lento Law Firm's premier Criminal Defense Team. But once the parent signs a Child Safety Protection Plan, the DCPP caseworker naturally gains a whole additional set of requirements, including everything the Plan imposes, that the parent must meet. And those Plan requirements tend to be quite specific and measurable, making for easy proof when the parent fails to meet the Plan. As beneficial as they can be in any one case, Child Safety Protection Plans inevitably increase the state's power to remove a child.
Child Safety Protection Plan Risks
As good as they sound, Child Safety Protection Plans thus carry risks. The greatest risk that Child Safety Protection Plans carry is that the parent won't meet the Plan's requirements, resulting in the child's removal or, if DCPP has already removed the child, then termination of parental rights. Every parent entering into a Child Safety Protection Plan should evaluate the Plan as to those risks. Is the Plan increasing or decreasing the parent's chance to retain or regain care and custody of the parent's child? Any parent entering into a Child Safety Protection Plan should be looking at each term of the Plan with an eye toward how easy or hard that term will be for the parent to meet, not just on the day that the parent signs the Plan but in the event of unfortunate changes in the parent's situation.
Avoiding a Child Safety Protection Plan
While a Child Safety Protection Plan can seem like an attractive alternative to fighting child abuse and neglect allegations, the wisdom of accepting a Child Safety Protection Plan depends in large part on whether the parent has committed abuse or neglect. Why would a parent who committed no abuse or neglect enter into a Child Safety Protection Plan that creates a risk of non-compliance? The wise parent generally wouldn't.
In some cases, the parent is better off fighting the abuse and neglect allegations than accepting a potentially onerous Child Safety Protection Plan. Those cases are generally the ones where the DCPP caseworker has no evidence or, at best weak evidence of any child abuse or neglect. In a perfect world, your best outcome to child abuse or neglect charges would be the state's abandonment of those charges, not that you enter into an onerous and unnecessary Child Safety Protection Plan that has you jumping through hoops, especially if you might stumble on one or more of those many jumps. Retain the Lento Law Firm's Criminal Defense Team to help you evaluate whether to fight your child abuse and neglect charges or to negotiate a Child Safety Protection Plan to avoid an adverse finding.
Child Safety Protection Plan Monitoring
Parents typically breathe a sigh of relief when signing a Child Safety Protection Plan, believing that the Plan assures them that they will retain or regain their child's care and custody. But once your Child Safety Protection Plan is in place, you're not free to do as you please with your child. The assigned DCPP caseworker will monitor your compliance with the adopted Child Safety Protection Plan. Monitoring may include periodic home visits for your interview, an inspection of the home, and observation and interview of your child. Monitoring may also include that you produce records, logs, and certifications proving your compliance. DCPP caseworkers may also communicate with others, such as counselors, addiction services, and laboratories conducting drug testing to investigate your compliance.
Court Enforcement of Child Safety Protection Plans
If your DCPP caseworker determines that you have not complied with your Child Safety Protection Plan, then your caseworker may return to the family court asking that the family court enforce your Plan. Because a Child Safety Protection Plan adopted with court action and approval effectively constitutes a court order, Plan enforcement can include anything a court might do to enforce other court orders. The court could potentially hold the parent in contempt, especially if the Plan prohibited or limited the parent's contact with the child, exposure of the child to drugs or guns, or other circumstances clearly endangering the child against the Plan's clear terms. Contempt could result in fines or incarceration. More likely, though, the court may modify or terminate the parent's rights to care for and maintain custody of the child. In the worst case, court enforcement could lead to the termination of your parental rights and placement of your child in foster care for adoption.
DCPP Referral for Family Services
Court enforcement of your Child Safety Protection Plan isn't a DCPP caseworker's only option. If your DCPP caseworker determines that your failure to comply is beyond your control due to a lack of resources or services, the caseworker may refer you to the New Jersey Department of Human Services family programs. The state offers a range of healthcare services, services for individuals with disabilities or mental illness, counseling and assistance, childcare programs, and other supportive services for families. The state also has programs for financial assistance. Our attorneys can help you advocate with your DCPP caseworker for a referral for family services rather than court enforcement risking your loss of your child's care and custody.
The Impact of Changes in Circumstances
Parents signing Child Safety Protection Plans generally believe that they can meet their Plan's terms. Parents have the right to be optimistic about their ability to care for their child or children. Parents should be confident that they can achieve and perform the basic things that many Child Safety Protection Plans require, especially as to feeding, housing, educating, and otherwise providing for their child. Parents signing Child Safety Protection Plans have often cared for their child or children for years without having any real concerns until the abuse allegations arose. But changes in circumstances can indeed affect a parent's ability to comply with a Child Safety Protection Plan. Changes in circumstances threatening a parent's ability to comply with a Child Safety Protection Plan can take any one or more of these forms:
- the parent's sudden illness or serious injury can affect the parent's ability to care for and provide for the child;
- the parent's job loss can affect a parent's ability to pay for housing, food, medical care, and transportation for the child;
- the parent's loss of child support or spousal support because of the other parent's job loss can likewise affect the parent's ability to pay for the child's housing, food, medical care, and transportation;
- the child's sudden illness or disability, or a sudden worsening of a pre-existing condition, can affect the parent's ability to care for and provide for the child;
- the sudden illness or disability of a dependent spouse, parent, sibling, or other individual can burden a parent in ways that prevent the parent from caring for the child;
- the parent's sudden loss of housing because of the property owner's change in attitude or circumstances can affect the parent's ability to keep the child safe and secure; and
- changes in the child's school location or schedule as the child moves up from one grade level to another can affect the parent's ability to keep the child in school.
Addressing Changes in Circumstances
When agreeing to a Child Safety Protection Plan, parents should consider the possibility and probability of the above changes in circumstances. The proposed Plan may need modification before the parent agrees to it if the parent can foresee a significant probability that the parent's circumstances or child's circumstances are likely to change, affecting the Plan. The DCPP caseworker may agree to modify the proposed Plan to account for likely changes in circumstances.
If circumstances do change after you enter into a Child Safety Protection Plan, you should retain us to help request Plan modifications before violating the Plan and facing the loss of the child's care and custody. Don't simply soldier on doing your best while knowing that you are violating the Plan because of a change in circumstances. Instead, retain us to help you evaluate whether you should seek court and caseworker approval to modify the Plan so that your best efforts will continue to comply with the Plan. Don't risk losing your child because of changes in circumstances beyond your control.
Child Safety Protection Plan Preferred Form
Child Safety Protection Plans can take many forms depending on the particular circumstances of the parent and child. Generally, though, Child Safety Protection Plans should take the following preferred form.
Remedial Measures for Child Safety Protection Plan Compliance
Child Safety Protection Plans should generally address the abuse allegations rather than simply provide a comprehensive list of what any fit parent should do. Each term should relate in some reasonably direct way to a specific abuse or neglect allegation in that particular case, not generally in other abuse or neglect cases. Child Safety Protection Plans should not be chock full of ordinary terms and conditions having nothing to do with the alleged abuse or neglect. A Plan's purpose is remedial, not comprehensive. A comprehensive Plan may give the DCPP caseworker greater latitude than necessary to monitor the parent for new and different issues unrelated to the abuse allegations.
Objective Measures for Child Safety Protection Plan Compliance
Child Safety Protection Plans should also establish clear and objective markers and milestones against which to measure a parent's compliance and progress. A sound Plan will avoid subjective conditions like being a "good parent" or to keep the child in "secure housing" in a "safe neighborhood," all terms open to interpretation. Subjective terms and conditions give too much authority to the DCPP caseworker to remove a child and too little guidance to the earnest parent. Your Child Safety Protection Plan should instead use measurables like to "retain the child in the child's current residence," "immediately take the child for medical care in the event of any medical illness or disability preventing the child from school attendance," and "submit to weekly urinalysis demonstrating complete abstention from alcohol." Objective measures remove disputes over interpretation. They also give the parent something clear for which to aim.
Progressive Measures for Child Safety Protection Plan Compliance
Child Safety Protection Plans don't have to be all or nothing. The better Plans instead often envision the parent meeting interim objectives before achieving the final goal of child custody retention or reunification. Many plans are progressive in nature, at first granting the parent only limited rights but gradually expanding those rights as the parent meets initial plan objectives. Progressive plans give the parent achievable short-term objectives, which can encourage a parent that the long-term goal is also achievable even if a year or more off.
Achievable Steps for Child Safety Protection Plan Compliance
The most significant feature of a sound Child Safety Protection Plan, though, has to do with its achievability. The Plan must offer steps that the parent can practically achieve, or the parent should not enter into the Plan. Signing an unachievable Plan is about as good as signing away your parental rights to your child or children. Failing to meet Plan terms doesn't necessarily mean that you will automatically lose your child or children. But it does mean that you've given your DCPP caseworker grounds to seek that termination or take other daunting enforcement measures. An achievable Plan would simultaneously be one that uses objective and progressive measures. Parents, including those suffering from serious addictions and physical or mental issues, can come a long way back from the precipice of losing their parental rights if the state gives them a clear and achievable path.
Child Safety Protection Plan Examples
Child Safety Protection Plan terms generally address the specific form of abuse that the DCPP caseworker found or suspects existed. Individual Plan terms can thus be very specific to each situation. Despite the fact that Child Safety Protection Plans are typically unique to each circumstance, they also tend to include common provisions addressing common abuse and neglect issues. Here are some common examples of Child Safety Protection Plan terms. Note how each term potentially relates in some way to specific abuse and neglect allegations.
Preventing Child Access to Weapons and Ammunition
Abuse and neglect allegations can involve the presence of guns, ammunition, and other weapons in the home to which the child has access. Gun issues can especially arise when the parent is in a home to which drug dealers or users have access. That the parent not maintain or permit any firearms or ammunition in the child's home, whether owned or controlled by the parent or others, can thus be one common term within a Child Safety Protection Plan.
Prohibiting Drug Possession and Distribution
Abuse and neglect allegations can also involve the illegal trafficking of drugs, where for instance, drug abusers and dealers move in and out of the child's home. The parent may not even be a drug abuser but may live with others who abuse or distribute illegal drugs. Children may accidentally ingest unlawful drugs or may suffer abuse at the hands of drug users and dealers. That the parent not permit any unlawful drugs or drug activity in the home and that the parent test periodically for unlawful drug use can thus be another common term within a Child Safety Protection Plan.
Prohibiting Alcohol Use and Possession
Abuse and neglect allegations can also involve alcohol abuse and addiction, including drunk driving with or without the child as an occupant in the vehicle or even the child having access to intoxicating liquor. In these cases, the parent is typically the one whom the DCPP caseworker will wish to ensure does not imbibe and does not permit alcohol within the child's home. That the parent abstains completely from alcohol use, that the parent periodically tests clean of any alcohol use, and that the parent prevents any alcohol from entering the child's home are thus other common terms within a Child Safety Protection Plan.
Requiring Addiction Counseling and Services
Addiction education, counseling, and medical services is another common Child Safety Protection Plan term when the allegations involve the parent's drug or alcohol abuse contributing to the child's abuse or neglect. The Plan may require weekly or more frequent group counseling, individual counseling, formal addiction evaluation, and even hospitalization or clinic services for halting and recovering from chronic alcohol or drug abuse. If, instead, the child abuse allegations involve the parent's anger, then the Plan may include anger-management counseling.
Child Safety and Development Education
Parent education in child safety and development is another common Child Safety Protection Plan term, especially in cases where the DCPP caseworker believes the parent lacks knowledge and skill in providing for, caring for, and guiding or disciplining the allegedly abused or neglected child. Education can include child nutrition, child hygiene, child discipline, and other rudiments of child care and development.
Requiring Child School Attendance
Keeping the child enrolled in and attending school can be another common term in Child Safety Protection Plans, especially when the child's alleged abuse or neglect has to do with school truancy and failure to progress academically. If educational disabilities may be contributing to the child's educational neglect, then the details of such a plan term may include seeking and obtaining the school's disability evaluation and then complying with the child's individualized education program.
Providing Prompt and Periodic Medical Care
Taking the child to the doctor for regular visits and vaccinations and on emergency occasions for illness or injury is another common Child Safety Protection Plan term, especially when the abuse and neglect allegations have to do with the child's untreated illness, untreated injury, unvaccinated state, or generally poor physical health and condition including malnourishment.
Other Common Child Safety Protection Plan Provisions
Other common Child Safety Protection Plan provisions can have to do with maintaining stable and appropriate housing, preventing contact with adult strangers who may be abuse perpetrators, ensuring that the child gets adequate time outdoors and in physical activity, and providing for clean and appropriate clothing, bedding, and other furnishings. The particulars depend on the abuse allegations and what conditions the DCPP caseworker observes in the home.
New Jersey's Child Abuse Definition
When negotiating a Child Safety Protection Plan, you should be aware of New Jersey's child abuse definition. Our skilled and experienced Criminal Defense Team can help you understand and evaluate the risk that your DCPP caseworker will find abuse or neglect, so that you know whether to agree to a Child Safety Protection Plan as a compromise to avoid an adverse finding. You should also know New Jersey's definition of child abuse so that you know what Child Safety Protection Plan terms to accept or reject in your negotiation. A DCPP caseworker may wish to impose all sorts of conditions in the Child Safety Protection Plan, some of which have little or nothing directly to do with avoiding abuse and neglect. Any term in a Child Safety Protection Plan should relate in some way to that abuse and neglect definition. New Jersey Statute §10:129-1.3 defines an "abused or neglected child" as a child under eighteen years of age who has suffered one of seven different forms of abuse. Consider each of those seven forms, along with a Child Safety Protection Plan term that might address that form.
Inflicting Physical Injury
New Jersey Statute §10:129-1.3's first form of an “abused or neglected child” is a child “whose parent or guardian inflicts, or allows to be inflicted upon such child, physical injury by other than accidental means, which causes or creates a substantial risk of death, or serious or protracted disfigurement, or protracted impairment of physical or emotional health or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ.” A related Child Safety Protection Plan term might require the allegedly abusive parent to complete anger management assessment and counseling, complete education in the appropriate parental discipline, or prevent the child from having contact with others who inflicted injury.
Creating a Risk of Physical Injury
New Jersey Statute §10:129-1.3's second form of an “abused or neglected child” is a child “whose parent or guardian creates or allows to be created a substantial or ongoing risk of physical injury to such child by other than accidental means which would be likely to cause death or serious or protracted disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ. A related Child Safety Protection Plan term might require the parent to limit the child's exposure to weapons, ammunition, or dangerous household items like knives and cleaning chemicals, or restrict the child from participating in dangerous activities like lawn mowing or extreme sports, particularly if the child's alleged abuse related to serious injury from such exposure.
Allowing Sexual Abuse
New Jersey Statute §10:129-1.3's third form of an “abused or neglected child” is a child “whose parent or guardian commits or allows to be committed an act of sexual abuse against the child.” A related Child Safety Protection Plan term might require the parent to prohibit adult strangers or other potential perpetrators from entering the child's residence or allowing the child to have unsupervised contact with specific individuals or with others generally.
Failing to Provide Adequate Care
New Jersey Statute §10:129-1.3's fourth form of an “abused or neglected child” is a child “whose physical, mental, or emotional condition has been impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired as the result of the failure of his or her parent or guardian to exercise a minimum degree of care[ i]n supplying the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, medical or surgical care, though financially able to do so, or though offered financial or other reasonable means to do so….” A related Child Safety Protection Plan term might require the parent to seek and obtain public financial assistance to pay for necessary services and to improve the child's feeding, clothing, housing, medical care, and schooling in specific ways, depending on the specific abuse and neglect concerns.
Abandoning the Child
New Jersey Statute §10:129-1.3's fifth form of an “abused or neglected child” is a child “who has been willfully abandoned by his or her parent or guardian.” An abandonment allegation can be a difficult one to address through a Child Safety Protection Plan, depending on the nature of and cause of the abandonment allegation. But a related Plan term might require the parent to move back into the abandoned residence with the child and maintain that residence to care for and supervise the child.
Excessive Child Restraint
New Jersey Statute §10:129-1.3's sixth form of an “abused or neglected child” is a child “upon whom excessive physical restraint has been used under circumstances which do not indicate that the child's behavior is harmful to himself or herself, others, or property.” A related Child Safety Protection Plan term might require the parent not to use physical restraints at all and to complete parental education in alternative forms of discipline, correction, and protection.
New Jersey Statute §10:129-1.3's seventh form of an “abused or neglected child” is a child “who is in an institution other than a day school, and: (1) Has been placed there inappropriately for a continued period of time with the knowledge that the placement has resulted or may continue to result in harm to the child's mental or physical well-being; or (2) Who has been willfully isolated from ordinary social contact under circumstances which indicate emotional or social deprivation.” A related Child Safety Protection Plan term might require the parent to restore the child to the parent's home, avoid any institutional placement, and provide for the child's regular participation in school or another appropriate social and developmental setting.
Whether to Accept a Child Safety Protection Plan
You can see from the above discussion that Child Safety Protection Plans can be your path either to a successful outcome of your DCPP case or an unsuccessful outcome. Depending on its terms and necessity, a Child Safety Protection Plan can set you up either for success or failure. For those and other reasons, your best move when facing a DCPP investigation, especially one in which the DCPP caseworker is proposing a Child Safety Protection Plan, is to retain the Lento Law Firm's premier Criminal Defense Team.
Your DCPP caseworker's offer to you of a Child Safety Protection Plan can be a signal that the caseworker doesn't have a child abuse case to make against you but just isn't willing to abandon the charge lest abuse evidence should later arise. Or the caseworker's offer may indicate that the caseworker has legitimate and serious concerns and may be setting you up for a test that you may well not be able to meet, giving the caseworker even more grounds on which to remove your child and seek termination of your parental rights. You need our attorneys' skilled and experienced representation to help you evaluate the evidence against New Jersey's abuse definitions so that you know whether to proceed with a Child Safety Protection Plan.
Negotiating a Child Safety Protection Plan
You also need our attorneys' skilled and experienced representation to negotiate an appropriate Child Safety Protection Plan if such a Plan is indeed your best option. The DCPP caseworker may propose unnecessary terms unrelated to the abuse allegations. The caseworker's proposed Plan may not have appropriate progressive steps that you can readily achieve. And the caseworker's Plan may have subjective rather than objective terms, giving the caseworker too much discretion over whether to remove your child and seek termination of your parental rights. Our attorneys can help you propose, advocate for, and negotiate appropriate Child Safety Protection Plan terms.
Criminal Defense Team for Child Safety Protection Plans
Your first and best step when facing a proposed DCPP Child Safety Protection Plan is to retain the Lento Law Firm's premier Criminal Defense Team to represent you. Don't let the DCPP put an onerous Child Safety Protection Plan in place, threatening your child's care and custody. Instead, call 888.535.3686 or contact us us when you learn of your DCPP investigation and especially when the caseworker proposes a Child Safety Protection Plan. Don't go unrepresented through the DCPP process. Your care and custody of your child or children mean far too much to you to risk losing a DCPP proceeding over a poorly drafted Child Safety Protection Plan.