In New Jersey, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) is the state agency in charge of investigating reports of child abuse or neglect. Although a DCP&P investigation is not a criminal procedure, it can still be a very difficult and emotional time for you and your family if you're involved in one of these investigations. The finding that the DCP&P determines can have a major impact on your and your child's life, possibly leading to criminal charges for you and your child's removal from your home.
This guide will help you understand the consequences of a DCP&P investigation and what to expect after receiving a finding from a DCP&P investigation.
The DCP&P determines a finding at the end of one of its investigations, and there are four possible findings:
- Substantiated: The DCP&P has found evidence of child abuse or neglect.
- Established: The DCP&P has found evidence of child abuse or neglect, but the mitigating (positive) factors outweigh the aggravating (negative) factors.
- Not established: The DCP&P has not found evidence of child abuse or neglect, but the information shows the child was still exposed to harm or risk of harm.
- Unfounded: The DCP&P has determined that the child was not exposed to harm or risk of harm.
You can read more about what each finding means in our guide to DCP&P investigations. Each finding comes with different penalties, with a substantiated finding representing the most severe.
The Penalties for a Substantiated DCP&P Finding
A substantiated case from DCP&P means the child may be taken from your home, and you will have to add your name permanently to the Child Abuse Registry. Your name cannot be removed, but the information is not public. However, you may not be able to gain employment at places that tend to children, and you may not be able to adopt or become a foster parent. You may also have to follow up with the DCP&P for more services, such as counseling.
Other penalties you could potentially face following a substantiated finding include:
- Attending counseling or therapy
- Not being able to see or speak to your child
- Having a court-ordered supervisor present when you spend time with your child
- Restricting you from returning home
DCP&P Child Abuse and Neglect Civil Court Process
The DCP&P could also choose to file a request for the court to intervene if their investigation finding is substantiated. The complaint gets filed with the Family Division of Superior Court and then follows these steps:
- Initial hearing: This hearing is scheduled with little or no notice to the parents and is to notify them of the DCP&P's complaint against them. It's also to discuss arrangements for the welfare of the child.
- Second hearing: The second hearing occurs 30 days later, and parents are free to present any evidence to prove the DCP&P's allegations are untrue.
- Case management conference: At this conference, parents can get access to the DCP&P's investigation files.
- Fact-finding hearing: This hearing is like a trial. Both sides (the DCP&P and the parents) may present evidence and call witnesses, but there is no jury—only a judge. If the court determines there was no abuse and there are no imminent child welfare concerns, the case gets closed. If there was no abuse, but there are welfare concerns, the court leaves the case open and orders services to address the child's welfare. If there was abuse, the case moves to a dispositional hearing.
- Dispositional hearing: The court directs the parents to engage in proper treatment and restricts their contact with the child. The court may also place the child elsewhere, depending on where they are currently placed.
Child Abuse Registry
The DCP&P maintains a registry of all the people in New Jersey who the Division has determined have committed child abuse or neglect. This Child Abuse Registry is confidential, although some employers and law enforcement agencies have access to it. The DCP&P adds someone's name to the Child Abuse Registry following an investigation of that person. If the finding of the investigation is substantiated, their name gets recorded in the registry. If the finding is established, not established, or unfounded, the name does not get added to the registry.
What It Means If Your Name Is in the Child Abuse Registry
Some employers are required to run prospective employees' names through the Child Abuse Registry. License renewal agencies may also have to perform this check before issuing a new license. These employers and agencies usually require working with children, the elderly, or other vulnerable populations. If your name is in the registry and you apply for a job where the employer is required to check, you cannot be hired. You may also lose your current job if your employer finds out you've been added to the registry.
Having your name in the New Jersey Child Abuse Registry also prohibits your name for consideration as a relative resource, foster parent, or adoptive parent.
Penalties for Abuse and Neglect of a Child
The DCP&P process is civil, but it's possible you will be brought up on child abuse or neglect charges by the prosecutor's office in a separate, criminal case. Child abuse crimes can be in the first, second, third, or fourth degree, with first being the most severe. Each degree carries different penalties, including:
- First-degree: 10-20 years in prison and registering as a convicted sex offender for the rest of your life (first-degree child abuse crimes involve an act of sexual penetration with a minor under 16)
- Second-degree: 5-10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000
- Third-degree: 3-5 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000
- Fourth-degree: Up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000
Another penalty for getting convicted of endangering a child is having a criminal record. You may be able to have this record expunged after six years, however.
If you are convicted of a criminal charge of child abuse or neglect, you could face jail time and fines. The penalties may change, however, if you are the child's parent or guardian. You may be able to obtain alternative sentencing, so you can avoid going to jail. These alternative penalties may include:
- Removal of the child from your care and placement with a state-approved agency
- Required payments to the agency caring for your child
- Arrest and possible jail time if you fail to make the required payments to the agency caring for your child
The Criminal Process for Child Abuse or Neglect Charges in New Jersey
When the DCP&P petitions the court to intervene in a child abuse or neglect case, the Deputy Attorney General's Office represents the DCP&P. The child in the case is also assigned a Law Guardian, who is separate from the DCP&P and the parent's attorney. The Law Guardian's responsibility is to look out for the child's best interests.
The steps of the criminal process for child abuse and neglect cases go as follows:
- Arraignment: You go to a hearing to notify you of the charges against you and possible penalties, as well as your rights.
- Grand jury hearing: The prosecutor goes before a panel of 16-24 jurors to make the case that there was probable cause that the crime was committed. You don't attend this hearing, and neither does the judge nor your defense attorney.
- Indictment: If the grand jury decides there is probable cause, you will be indicted.
- Conferences: After the indictment, the court schedules some conferences to discuss the status of the case, and your attorney may work to resolve the matter at this stage.
- Trial: If the case can't be resolved during the conferences phase, it moves to a trial. The trial takes place in front of a jury of 14 people.
- Sentencing: If you are convicted, there will be a subsequent hearing after the trial to receive your sentencing. If you are acquitted at the trial, the case ends there.
Penalties for Established DCP&P Finding
If your DCP&P investigation ends with an established finding, your name does not get put in the Child Abuse Registry. The DCP&P holds onto your records in their internal files, however. If you have an established case on record with DCP&P, you may not be able to become a foster parent. Also, if you have multiple established cases on record with the DCP&P, the Division may decide to designate your latest investigation finding as substantiated. If that happens, you would be subject to all the penalties that come with a substantiated finding.
Although getting an established DCP&P finding isn't as severe as a substantiated one, it's still a very serious matter. The courts have recognized that this result can still have a significant impact on your life, including employment opportunities and the ability to be a foster parent, and so have allowed people to appeal this finding with the Office of Administrative Law (OAL).
Penalties for Not Established DCP&P Finding
A DCP&P finding of not established means that there is no evidence of child abuse or neglect, but there is evidence to show that the child was placed in harm's way or at risk of being harmed. Your name will not go in the Child Abuse Registry, but it will remain on the DCP&P's records permanently.
A not established finding can cover a wide range of cases, so some people feel relieved by this finding while others feel outraged by the injustice of it. It's not as serious as substantiated or established findings and so can't be appealed using the same process. A not established DCP&P finding can still have repercussions for you later on, however, and shouldn't be taken lightly. Remember that your information stays in the DCP&P database without the possibility of removing it.
Are There Penalties an Unfounded DCP&P Finding?
If the DCP&P determines that the child abuse or neglect report against you is unfounded, there will be no further action for you to take. It's not possible to appeal this decision, but your name won't go into the Child Abuse Registry. There's also no risk that your child will be taken away from you at this time. The main consequence of an unfounded finding is that the DCP&P will keep your case and investigation records in their files for the next three years. After those three years, if there are no other child abuse or neglect cases involving you with the DCP&P, your case files will be erased.
The Non-Legal Repercussions of a DCP&P Investigation
The legal repercussions of a DCP&P child abuse case can be severe—fines, jail time, and having your child taken away. They aren't the only consequences of a child abuse or neglect case, however. The emotional turmoil of the DCP&P investigation and subsequent court case can have a lasting impact on your child's and your own mental health. Some children may even suffer psychological trauma that affects their development later in life. Having to deal with state agency officials and courtrooms at an early age can also increase the risk that a child enters the justice system for juvenile offenses.
It's important to mitigate these factors as much as possible as you and your family go through a DCP&P investigation and appeal process. One way to do that is by hiring an experienced family law attorney who can stand by your side and offer the support you and your family need. Legal assistance can make the process go more smoothly and help increase your chances of a favorable outcome.
How a DCP&P Attorney Can Help
Dealing with a DCP&P investigation isn't something that you should go through without support, especially if you are the parent or guardian of the child involved. The penalties from such an investigation can be severe, and you may not know how to go through the civil or criminal court process that follows.
Joseph D. Lento has stood by countless New Jersey families as they dealt with the DCP&P and child abuse and neglect cases. He can offer the legal guidance you need during this difficult time. Contact the Lento Law Firm today by calling 888-535-3686 to see what we can do for your family.