If you or a loved one has been involved with a child abuse or neglect case in New Jersey, you're probably feeling stressed and overwhelmed. When the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) receives a report, it usually conducts an investigation to determine if child abuse or neglect has occurred. The investigation itself can be grueling and emotionally wrought, but dealing with the DCP&P's decision can be even more difficult. When a determination is made, you may be able to appeal the DCP&P's findings. This guide to DCP&P appeals in New Jersey will help you understand when you can appeal and how to do it.
Getting Reported to DCP&P and the Investigation
Anyone can contact DCP&P to make a report of suspected child abuse and neglect. In fact, in New Jersey, you are obligated to make such a report if you witnessed or believe you witnessed child abuse or neglect. Reports are first screened through either Child Protective Services (CPS) or the Child Welfare Service (CWS). CPS allegations may constitute abuse or neglect, whereas CWS allegations lack sufficient risk to justify an investigation.
After a DCP&P officer receives the referral from CPS, they must launch an investigation. This could involve coming to your home to interview your child or gather other information related to the child abuse or neglect report. We have a separate guide to DCP&P investigations you can reference to learn more about what to expect and how they work.
How Does DCP&P Make a Decision?
The DCP&P has 60 days to make a decision once the investigation starts. After visiting the child at their home and gathering information about their situation, the DCP&P will review the case. The Division looks for signs of abuse or neglect, such as physical injury, hospitalization, whether a child's basic needs are met, as well as other aggravating and mitigating factors. The caseworker will stack these aggravating and mitigating factors against each other to make a determination in the case.
The DCP&P investigation is not a criminal case, it is a civil matter. However, you could be charged with child abuse or neglect crime separately from the DCP&P case. You will receive a letter from DCP&P notifying you of the results of the investigation, along with the finding. There are currently four findings the DCP&P can make on a child abuse or neglect report:
- Substantiated: Your children may be taken from you, and your information will go permanently in the Child Abuse Registry.
- Established: Your information will not go in the Child Abuse Registry, but DCP&P will keep your files. You may not be able to become a foster parent.
- Not established: Your information will not go in the Child Abuse Registry, but DCP&P will keep your files.
- Unfounded: Your information will not go in the Child Abuse Registry, and the DCP&P will most likely expunge your name and info from their records after three years.
You can read our guide to DCP&P Consequences to learn more about what each finding means and what happens afterward.
Can You Appeal the Finding of a DCP&P Investigation?
Depending on the DCP&P's finding, you may be able to appeal it. The consequences vary for each finding, so you'll want to consult with a family law attorney who's experienced in dealing with DCP&P appeals to know the best solution for your situation.
How to Appeal a Substantiated Finding
If the DCP&P finds your case substantiated, your name will be put in the Child Abuse Registry. While this registry isn't public, having your name come up in a Child Abuse Registry Index (CARI) search can have implications for working in childcare facilities or becoming a foster parent. If your DCP&P case turns out to be substantiated, you have the right to appeal.
You have 20 days to submit a written appeal to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) and request an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. You should also contact DCP&P and the District Attorney General to explain why you do not want to have your name in the Child Abuse Registry. If they hear you out and understand your case, they may decide to change your finding from substantiated to established or not established.
Once the DCP&P receives your appeal letter, it will review your case. At this point, the Division may rescind the finding. If not, you will have to go to the administrative hearing. Before the hearing, you must also attend a pre-hearing conference to meet the judge assigned to your case and the District Attorney General, who represents the DCP&P. You are also allowed to bring an attorney with you to all conferences and hearings during your DCP&P finding appeal process, and it's highly recommended that you do.
Before the hearing, you and your attorney will have time to prepare by asking for a copy of your DCP&P file, as well as gathering other important records, letters, or other relevant documents. Your attorney can also help you find witnesses who are willing to testify on your behalf at the hearing. At the hearing, both sides may present their evidence and witnesses, and the judge will be the sole decision maker.
How to Appeal an Established Finding
If the DCP&P comes to an established finding in your case, your name will not go in the Child Abuse Registry. But your information will stay on record with DCP&P and cannot be expunged from their files. If you have other established cases with the DCP&P from previous investigations, the Division may decide to make your current case substantiated.
Due to recent legislation, you can also appeal an established DCP&P finding in New Jersey. The appeals process is the same as for a substantiated finding. An established determination can still have an impact on employment opportunities, your right to adopt, and future proceedings with the Division, so you still have the right to appeal.
How to Appeal a Not Established Finding
In a not established finding, the DCP&P can't prove abuse or neglect occurred, but there is still evidence indicating the child was exposed to harm or risk. Your name does not get added to the Child Abuse Registry, but the DCP&P keeps your information on record and will not expunge it.
Not established findings have been applied to a range of situations—some parents have gotten a DCP&P not established finding for spanking a child. It's generally up to the individual case worker and can therefore be subjective or even arbitrary. Once you receive this finding, it may be unclear what to do next. You cannot appeal to the OAL like you can for substantiated and established findings, but that doesn't mean you should do nothing.
You can appeal a not established DCP&P finding to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey. Once you file the appeal, you can get access to the DCP&P documents that support the not established finding, which the Division does not make available otherwise. The Appellate Division may overturn the finding because it was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. In order to submit an appeal for this process, you should consult with an attorney with experience dealing with the DCP&P and the Appellate Division.
How to Appeal an Unfounded Finding
In an unfounded finding, the DCP&P has determined that your child was not harmed or placed at risk of harm. Your name does not go on the Child Abuse Registry, and your records will most likely be expunged from the DCP&P's files after three years. To appeal an unfounded finding, you should consult with a family law attorney, as your options may vary depending on your situation.
What's at Risk If You Don't Appeal
If you disagree with the DCP&P decision about your case, you should seek reconsideration from the Division. Assuming there's nothing you can do about a substantiated or established finding will lead to negative consequences that could impact the rest of your life. A substantiated finding could allow DCP&P to take your child away from you. The Division could also file criminal charges, which may lead to an arrest. If convicted, you would be guilty of the felony offense of endangering the welfare of children, which carries a prison sentence of five to 10 years.
Even if the DCP&P doesn't press charges, you could still be prohibited from gaining employment at facilities that work with children, such as daycare centers and group homes. You may also not be allowed to become a foster parent or adopt children. Your name will also show up in the Child Abuse Registry if the finding is substantiated.
There is a lot at stake in a DCP&P case, and you can't afford not to appeal. The impacts on your life and your child's life would be far too great. By working with an experienced family law attorney, you can better understand the appeal process and the steps you need to take to make it happen.
Can Your Records Be Expunged from DCP&P?
There is no way for you to expunge your records from DCP&P on your own. The Division doesn't accept requests for expungement, and there's no process to follow for it. The only way your records will be removed from the DCP&P files is if the finding in your investigation was unfounded. For unfounded findings, the DCP&P will hold onto your records for three years and, if there are no other investigations involving you, will expunge them. If another case gets opened that is associated with you at DCP&P, then your files will not be removed.
Your records stay permanently with DCP&P if the finding in your investigation was either substantiated, established, or not established.
Do You Need an Attorney to Appeal a DCP&P Finding?
You can file an appeal with the OAL on your own; you don't need an attorney to do it for you. However, it's highly recommended that you have an attorney familiar with DCP&P appeals assist you throughout the appeals process. If you are going through an administrative appeal, there will be a hearing where you can technically represent yourself, but it would be wiser to have an attorney do so. An attorney can help you draft the appeal letter to ensure it's in the proper format with the right language. They can also help you go through the records the DCP&P has on you and gather evidence to help build an argument in your favor.
There are strict rules about filing a DCP&P appeal that you must follow if you want a chance of your appeal being successful. An experienced attorney will know these rules and help ensure you meet deadlines and fill out paperwork that's needed throughout the process. They can also represent you at your hearing and will know how to address the judge and other parties present. Having a family lawyer by your side is an invaluable resource during a DCP&P appeal process.
Work with an Experienced Family Law Attorney
Dealing with the DCP&P makes for an emotional time for you and your family. On top of everything you're dealing with, you don't want to have to handle the appeal and hearing process by yourself. The process can take a long time as well, with the investigation lasting 60 days and the appeal process going on for several more weeks. This time can be agonizing as you wait to find out what will happen to your child and your family. Hiring a family lawyer for your DCP&P appeal brings you more than expertise—it brings you peace of mind as well.
Joseph D. Lento has helped countless families in New Jersey dealing with DCP&P investigations and appeals. He knows firsthand how difficult this time can be and what it takes to support your family. Contact the Lento Law Firm by calling 888-535-3686.