When an investigator from the New Jersey Department of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) knocks on your door, it can be terrifying. People with the potential power to remove your children from your home may be demanding entry to your home, demanding access to your children, and demanding to interview you. They may even have a police officer with them and a warrant. What should you do? And how do you protect yourself and your family from allegations of abuse or neglect? Fortunately, you don't have to handle this stressful situation alone. An experienced criminal defense lawyer, well-versed in family law matters and DCPP investigations, like attorney Joseph D. Lento, can help.
What Is the New Jersey DCPP?
The New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP), formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), is tasked with protecting children in New Jersey by investigating all reports of child abuse and neglect. When the agency receives a report of suspected abuse or neglect, DCPP must begin a child protection investigation within 24 hours or by the end of the day, it receives the report, if possible.
How Do DCPP Investigations Work?
DCPP has 60 days to complete its investigation. After receiving the initial report, DCPP will “screen” the report at the state's central registry. To be considered valid, the report must meet certain requirements. The report must be:
- About a child under 18 and a perpetrator with custody,
- Contain allegations that a child was harmed or is at serious risk of being harmed,
- Must show information that the parent or caregiver is responsible for the harm.
Some cases will end up classified as urgent if:
- Law enforcement requests an immediate response,
- The report involves serious physical abuse,
- The report involves allegations that a newborn was exposed to drugs,
- A child under six is left unsupervised,
- Allegations suggest the child needs urgent medical care, or
- A child died, and another is at risk in the same home.
To investigate, DCPP will interview caregivers, parents, teachers, and the child in question. Sometimes they will also interview coaches, tutors, medical professionals, counselors, or religious advisors to the child. DCPP will also make one or more home visits to ensure the environment is safe. Once DCPP completes its investigation, it will make specific findings about the allegations, including whether the abuse or neglect is substantiated, established, not established, or unfounded.
- “Unfounded” Allegations If DCPP doesn't find by a “preponderance of the evidence” that there was abuse or neglect and there is no evidence you put your child at risk of harm or harmed them, DCPP's report will state that the allegations are “unfounded.”
- “Not Established” Allegations If the DCPP report states that the allegations are “not established,” this isn't as exonerating as “not founded.” The DCPP report will say that the allegations aren't established if there is evidence that you harmed your child or put your child at risk of harm but no “preponderance of the evidence” supporting the allegations of neglect or abuse.
- “Substantiated” Allegations The agency's report may find the allegation of abuse or neglect against you “substantiated” if the “preponderance of the evidence” indicates that you abused or neglected your child. Under New Jersey law, an “abused or neglected child” is one whose parent or guardian:
- Inflicts physical injury, disfigurement, or physical or emotional impairment,
- Creates a “substantial or ongoing risk of physical injury,”
- Commits sexual abuse,
- Doesn't exercise a “minimum of care.”
- Willfully abandons a child, or
- Inappropriately places a child in an institution that will harm their mental or physical well-being.
- See N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21.1 (2012). The agency will also consider aggravating factors like:
- Not complying with a safety plan or a court order,
- The age and vulnerability of the child,
- Evidence of a pattern of abuse or neglect,
- Institutional neglect or abuse, and
- Whether the child's safety requires removal from the perpetrator. N.J. Admin Code § 3A:10-7.5 (2013).
- In some cases, the agency must find the abuse or neglect “substantiated,” including when:
- A child dies or nearly dies because of abuse or neglect,
- Exposing or subjecting a child to inappropriate sexual materials or activity,
- Inflicting an injury or creating a condition that results in the child being hospitalized or needing significant medical attention,
- Repeatedly abusing any child,
- Not taking reasonable action to protect a child from repeated physical or sexual abuse when the parent knew or should have known of the abuse, or
- Depriving a child of care that caused serious harm or a substantial risk of serious harm. N.J. Admin. Code § 3A:10-7.4 (2013)
- “Established” Allegations DCPP will also consider mitigating factors when looking at allegations of abuse or neglect. If the mitigating factors outweigh aggravating factors, they may find the allegations “established” rather than substantiated. Mitigating factors DCPP may take into account include:
- Remediation you make before DCPP finishes its investigations,
- Temporary or extraordinary circumstances that caused you to act uncharacteristically in an “abusive or neglectful manner,”
- Isolated abuse or neglect, and
- Abuse or neglect that had a “limited, minor, or negligible physical, psychological, or emotional impact” on the child.
What Can DCPP Investigators Do?
It can be overwhelming when DCPP shows up at your door making demands, and your instinct may be to deny them access to your child, but there are some things they are empowered to do by law. They will want to come to your home to interview you and your child, to ensure the home is safe, and to look for signs of drug or alcohol abuse.
- Interviews with Your Children DCCP investigators can interview your child, and you don't have the right to be present. They may conduct this interview at your home, but they may do so at school, daycare, or another neutral location. In many cases, you may not know the interview has taken place until after the fact. However, if you are present, you can ask the investigator if you can stay with your child. You might offer to stand or sit behind them, so you don't appear to influence what they say.
- Remove Clothing Sometimes, investigators may remove clothing items from your child if they believe they're hiding injuries. But they can't force children of the opposite sex or those who are older to remove clothing. Investigators also aren't supposed to remove a child's clothing if they know they will be examined by a medical professional shortly.
- Emergency Removals In some cases, if the investigators believe your child is in imminent danger, they can remove them from your home without a court order. If they do this, they must get a court order within two days, and you will receive notice of a hearing.
What Are the Limits of DCPP Investigations?
There are limits to what DCPP can do and the information they can give you about an investigation.
- Basic Information About the Report DCPP must tell you if they are investigating a report of possible abuse and neglect, the basic information about the abuse or neglect reported, and whether you are the subject of the investigation. However, they cannot tell you who made the report to DCPP.
- Entering Your Home As part of the investigation, DCPP will want to enter your home and ensure a safe environment. You don't have to let them enter. But if you don't, they will probably get a court order and come back with the police to enforce it. You may have better luck asking if you can make an appointment for the investigator to come back at a more convenient time for a home investigation. In the meantime, you should contact an experienced attorney right away.
- Interviewing You You don't have to speak to DCPP. However, in some cases, it may be advantageous to do so. You should know that if you begin to speak with DCPP, you will be assumed to have consented to the interview. If you break off the interview or refuse to answer questions, DCPP can go to court and ask for an order to investigate. Refusing to speak to them doesn't mean the case will disappear. However, you can have an attorney present for your interview, and it's always a good idea to speak with an experienced lawyer before you talk to DCPP.
- Release Limits DCPP may ask you to sign releases for information from professionals who are supposed to keep information confidential, such as a doctor, psychologist, or counselor. Before signing anything, you should ensure that you understand what you're signing and that it has appropriate limits. For example, if DCPP wants access to your medical records, you can ask and note in writing that the release should only apply to a specific date or period. You can also ask if DCPP will instead accept a letter from the individual with the information they need instead of giving them access to your entire record. If you're unsure, never sign anything you don't fully understand. Call an experienced New Jersey criminal defense attorney like Joseph D. Lento for advice before you sign.
- Need for a Warrant DCPP investigators are not police officers, and they can't arrest you. However, they may call the police if needed. For example, if the investigator believes your child is in imminent danger or something violent happens during an interview, they may call the police to assist. They may seek a court order if you refuse to let them in your home.
How Can an Attorney Help Me With a DCP&P Investigation?
If you know you or your family is facing an investigation from DCPP, you need an experienced attorney right away. A New Jersey criminal defense attorney well-versed in New Jersey family law and DCPP investigations can help protect your rights during the process, in any hearings, and through any appeal.
- Investigative Visits Your attorney can be present during any interview with DCPP, ensuring your right are protected. Your attorney can also ensure DCPP provides you with the information about the investigation that they can, including whether you are the subject of an investigation and basic information about the allegations of abuse or neglect.
- Accessing DCPP Evidence Getting records from DCPP related to their investigation of an allegation of abuse or neglect can be challenging. The law prohibits their release unless you can show good cause: [a]ll records of child abuse reports […], all information obtained by the Department of Children and Families in investigating such reports, including reports received […], and all reports of findings forwarded to the child abuse registry […] shall be kept confidential and may be disclosed only under the circumstances expressly authorized [by this statute]. N.J.S.A. § 9:6-8.10a (2012). An experienced attorney can ensure you have access to the evidence in your DCPP investigation that you need for your DCPP matter or any criminal action the state brings against you.
- Court Hearings After a DCPP investigation, the agency may file a complaint in court seeking relief. When this happens, the judge will determine whether your child is neglected or abused under New Jersey law with a general ruling. The court can't rule that the allegations are “substantiated” or “established.” New Jersey law states, “[t]he Superior Court, Chancery Division, has jurisdiction to adjudicate determinations that a child is an abused or neglected child.” N.J. Admin. Code § 3A:10-7.5 (2013). But you will need an experienced attorney to represent you in a court matter regarding allegations of abuse or neglect.
- Appeals You can appeal a DCPP decision that neglect or abuse allegations are “substantiated” or “established.” You can ask for an additional review through DCPP and a review by New Jersey's Office of Administrative Law. You and your attorney can present additional evidence rebutting and challenging DCPP's findings. But you must request an administrative appeal of DCPP's findings within 20 days of receiving the agency's findings. If you'd like a hearing with an administrative law judge, you can also request this at the same time. However, if you're currently involved in a Superior Court case with DCPP, you may be able to request an appeal through the court.
You Need an Experienced New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney
If you're in the midst of a DCPP investigation, you need an experienced attorney right away. A finding of abuse or neglect against you can devastate your family and result in the agency or courts taking your children from you. A skilled criminal defense attorney who has handled many DCPP and family actions in New Jersey can protect you and your family during this process. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his skilled team at the Lento Law Firm can help. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at (888) 535-3686 to schedule your consultation.