If the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) has contacted you about your children, you may feel worried and wonder what to do next. A DCP&P investigation can be a tumultuous time for your family, and we understand that finding yourself involved in a child abuse and neglect investigation can be an emotional experience. We've created this guide to DCP&P investigations to help you better understand the process and know what to expect.
What Triggers a DCP&P Investigation
When someone files a report of child abuse or neglect, DCP&P will send a case worker to the child's home to investigate within 24 hours of receiving the call. They can file a report with the State Central Registry (SCR) or call 1-877-652-2873. SCR screeners will ask the person reporting for more information about the situation, including:
- The name of the child and their parent or caregiver's name
- Age and address of the child
- Name of the alleged perpetrator and their relationship to the child
- Type and frequency of the alleged abuse or neglect
- Current or previous injuries to the child
- When the alleged abuse or neglect occurred and how the person learned of it
- Where the incident occurred
- Where the child is now
- Whether the alleged perpetrator still has access to the child
- How urgent the need is for intervention and if the child is in imminent danger
Calls can be placed to the SCR anonymously, and DCP&P investigators do not have to provide the name of the person who reported you if you are suspected of child abuse or neglect. New Jersey is considered a mandatory reporting state, meaning that anyone with reasonable cause to believe a child has been abused or neglected must report their concerns immediately. If they don't, they could be guilty of a disorderly person's offense.
What Do They Look at in a DCP&P Investigation?
When DCP&P learns about potential child abuse or neglect, they will dispatch an officer to the child's home and typically do the following:
- Inspection for cleanliness, the child's living and sleeping arrangements, and whether basic needs of clothing, shelter, food, and water are met
- Interview parents, guardians, and anyone else living in the home for signs of abuse or neglect
- Interview the child who is the subject of the investigation as well as their siblings
- Check for signs of physical or emotional abuse to the child
If you are the accused in the DCP&P claim, the investigators may also ask you to sign a release that will allow them to access the child's medical records or other confidential information. They may also ask you to take certain evaluations or a drug test.
Your Rights When a DCP&P Investigation Is Launched
At this point, you might be wondering which parts of the DCP&P investigation you must comply with. For starters, you should know that the DCP&P does not have to inform you when they plan to show up at your home. They are allowed to go into your home and talk to you and your family without needing a warrant. You have the right to ask the DCP&P officer to show identification proving they are who they say they are.
You also have a right to the following information:
- A report of child abuse or neglect has been filed and is being investigated
- General information about the abuse or neglect in the report
- The names and phone numbers of the investigators, as well as their supervisor's name and phone number
- Details about the allegation if you are the person named in the child abuse or neglect report
Signing a Release
The DCP&P investigators may ask you to sign a release or other documents. You should never sign anything without reading and understanding it. You can also ask to limit the information on the release and still sign it. For example, you can release your medical information but only from your primary care physician.
Can DCP&P Officers Arrest You?
DCP&P officers are not law enforcement officers; they cannot put you under arrest. A DCP&P case is a civil matter, not a criminal one. When the investigators show up at your door for the first time, they cannot charge you with a crime. That means the penalties could amount to attending counseling sessions or entering a treatment facility, not jail time.
Bear in mind, however, that if the DCP&P feels a child is in immediate danger, they may bring police officers with them. The police can help to remove the child from a life-threatening situation, but the police officer's presence does not mean that a crime has been committed or that the police are involved in the DCP&P investigation.
What to Do When DCP&P Investigators Show Up
You are not legally required to speak to the DCP&P investigators. If you start talking to them, it means you have agreed to be interviewed, but you can stop the interview at any time. Refusing to speak to the DCP&P officers when they show up does not close the case, however. DCP&P can go to Superior Court and request an order to investigate from a judge. You can explain why you think there shouldn't be an investigation at a hearing, but the judge may still grant the order to investigate, forcing you to work with the DCP&P investigators.
Can DCP&P Investigators Talk to Your Child Alone?
DCP&P caseworkers are allowed to interview your children privately. If it makes you uncomfortable, you can ask the investigator if you can stand behind the child so it doesn't seem like you're influencing their responses or behavior. Note that the investigators can also speak to your children at school without telling you first and without your permission. They can also talk to your child's teacher, pediatrician, counselor, or anyone who might have information about the abuse or neglect report. DCP&P doesn't need your permission to speak to the child's teacher, but they do need it to speak to the pediatrician.
Taking Your Child Away
DCP&P investigators do have the right to take your child away at the first investigation. If they do, they must get a court order to enforce it within two business days, and you must show up in court for a hearing. They don't have to take your child to foster care, the child can go stay with another family member if DCP&P decides to remove them from your home.
DCP&P must make reasonable efforts to keep a child in their home, however, so if you agree to certain adjustments in the household, you may be able to convince the DCP&P officers to let the child stay.
Is a DCP&P Investigation a Criminal Case?
In New Jersey, an abuse and neglect case is not considered a criminal matter, it is a civil one. If you lose the case, the penalties will not be incarceration or other punishments for crimes. Although this case is civil, you should keep in mind that the prosecutor's office may file a separate criminal case against you based on the information gathered. The two cases can happen simultaneously, and one may affect the other, so be sure your attorney is aware if you are involved in both a civil and criminal case related to child abuse and neglect.
What Do the Results of Your Investigation Mean?
In New Jersey, DCP&P investigations must be closed within 60 days. Once it's over, the Division makes a finding and designates the claim of child abuse or neglect as either substantiated, established, not established, or unfounded. Here's what each of those four findings means.
- Substantiated A case of child abuse or neglect is considered substantiated if there are “absolutely substantiating circumstances” such as:
- Repeated instances of physical abuse
- Exposure to inappropriate physical activity
- If none of the above factors exist, the DCP&P looks at aggravating (negative) and mitigating (positive factors). If the negative factors outweigh the positive ones, the case is substantiated. If there are more positive than negative factors, the case is established.
- Established In an established case, there is evidence of child abuse or neglect, but the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating factors. The DCP&P will keep your records on file, and they cannot be expunged.
- Not Established The DCP&P designates a case as not established if they gather evidence that indicates the child was exposed to harm or risk, but abuse or neglect has not been proven. The DCP&P will still keep your records on file and will not expunge them.
- Unfounded If the child was not harmed or placed at risk of harm, the DCP&P will classify the case as unfounded. The DCP&P keeps your information on file but only for three years. It may keep it longer than three years if there's another report of child abuse or neglect during that time, another member of your child's household is investigated by the Division, or if a court orders DCP&P to keep the records.
Do You Need a Lawyer in a DCP&P Investigation?
You do not need to have an attorney present during a DCP&P investigation, and it's unlikely that you will, as the Division usually does not inform you before they show up. Keep in mind that you do not have to let the DCP&P officers into your home, and you do not have to answer their questions. As soon as you learn you are part of a DCP&P investigation, you should contact an experienced family law attorney. They can help you navigate the process and advise on what to do if the DCP&P files a complaint against you in Superior Court.
What Happens After the Investigation Ends?
After the investigation ends, DCP&P may file a complaint against you if they find evidence of abuse.
Then, the case proceeds with the following steps:
- Preliminary hearing: At this hearing, you go before a judge who decides whether the DCP&P's case is valid and whether your child needs to be placed elsewhere for the immediate future.
- Fact-finding hearing: There may be a fact-finding hearing, where the DCP&P tries to gather information to prove that you committed an act of child abuse or neglect. You can defend yourself at this hearing.
- Dispositional hearing: If the court rules against you in the fact-finding hearing, the judge in the case will hold a dispositional hearing to decide what happens next for you and your child.
- Review hearing: Review hearings are for checking up on you and ensuring that the process is still on track.
- Permanency hearing: Within 12 months of the date your child has been removed from your home, there must be a permanency hearing. The judge decides on the child's permanent living situation.
Going through this process alone can be difficult and overwhelming, especially if you've never dealt with the DCP&P before. With an experienced family lawyer by your side, the process can go much more smoothly. They'll help you understand the steps you need to take and prepare you for your various hearings.
DCP&P Investigations with a Family Law Attorney
Having to deal with the DCP&P in New Jersey can be a scary time for any family. You want what's best for your children, but you're unsure how the process works and what the right steps to take are. Joseph D. Lento has helped countless New Jersey families with these investigations, fighting for children's and families' welfare. Contact the Lento Law Firm by calling 888-535-3686, so we can help your family with this difficult situation.