Every year, nearly 4 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States. Thanks to commitment and dedication by parents, law enforcement agencies, and attorneys, most of these reports do not result in any formal charges and the vast majority are screened out through investigation. This does not mean, however, that false reports do not have serious financial, emotional, and personal consequences. To understand how the law approaches reports of suspected child abuse and neglect, it's important to understand New Jersey's laws surrounding mandated reporters.
Who Qualifies As a Mandated Reporter in New Jersey?
Mandated reporters are usually designated individuals or groups of professionals who are required under applicable federal and state laws to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. According to Childwelfare.gov, approximately 47 states have laws in place that require certain professionals like nurses, teachers, medical examiners, etc. to report suspected abuse. Contrary to other states, however, the state of New Jersey does not specify any professional groups as mandated reporters but instead mandates any resident who has “reasonable cause” to believe a child has been abused or neglected to report the suspected abuse to the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (“DCF.”)
Specifically, N.J.S.A. §9:6-8.10, requires individuals who suspect child abuse or neglect to report their concerns to the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (“DCPP.”) These reports are usually referred to as DCPP reports/reporters.
Signs of Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect
While it's impossible to infer exactly what any child's home life looks like, there are several signs of suspected child abuse that professionals are trained to look for. According to the Mayo Clinic, some common signs of possible child abuse or neglect might include:
- Frequent absences from school;
- Unexplained injuries such as bruises; tender areas; broken bones, etc.;
- Rebellious or defiant behaviors;
- Sexual behavior or knowledge that is inappropriate for their age/experience;
- Low self-confidence;
- Skittish or anxious behaviors and/or responses;
- Appetite concerns;
- Lack of clothing, food, or school supplies to meet physical needs;
- Hoarding behaviors;
- Poor personal cleanliness;
- Medical complications that are not being adequately addressed; and
- Mood swings or aggression such as anger, violence, hostility, threatening language, etc.
While many of these signs could be symptoms of larger concerns regarding a child's home life, any parent could likely point to some behaviors on this list as mere misunderstandings. For example, a child may have an underlying medical condition explaining their frequent absences or they may be facing a mental health problem that the family is already addressing appropriately. In these scenarios, an already difficult situation can become that much more complicated once DCPP becomes involved.
Other times, a person may suspect that a child is being abused or neglected due to interactions that they have had with the child's parent and/or caregiver. According to the Mayo Clinic, some common signs of possible abuse or neglect stemming from parental behavior may include:
- Harsh physical discipline;
- Attempts to limit the child's social interaction with other children and/or adults;
- Unrealistic demands of physical and/or academic performance;
- Conflicting explanations for injuries, tardiness, absences, etc.;
- Indifference to the child's emotional or physical distress;
- Frequent trips to medical providers and/or requests for medical screenings such as x-rays, MRIs, etc.; and
- Aggressive, threatening, or inappropriate behavior.
Just as some of the child's behavior can be overanalyzed or misconstrued, parental behavior can also mistakenly signal an unwarranted DCPP report.
What Happens After a Report is Made?
After receiving a report of suspected child abuse, DCPP assigns a response worker who thoroughly investigates the situation. Investigations may include speaking with the child at school, visiting the home, etc. It's important to note that both the identity of the reporter and the contents of the report remain confidential under N.J.S.A. §9:6-8.13. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. While the identity of the reporter remains confidential, the contents of the report can be shared with specific agencies who help investigate the report such as:
- Law enforcement agencies;
- Mental health providers;
- Social workers; and
- Legal counsel for the child and parents
Child Abuse Treatment and Prevention Act Exception
In certain circumstances, however, reports of child abuse may not remain confidential. Under a federal law known as The Child Abuse Treatment and Prevention Act (“CAPTA,”) a confidentiality exception exists if state agencies such as DCPP have cause to believe that the information received is “false or misleading.” This exemption applies for use by law enforcement officers who investigate reports of sexual exploitation, as well as for use by someone with a legal duty to provide services to children. Usually, however, CAPTA applies in situations involving the death or near death of a child and allows the applicable state agencies to publish reports discussing the cause of death or near death of the child. Although this may seem counterintuitive to concepts of confidentiality, CAPTA was implemented due to the public's understandable concern and interest in ensuring that society is aware of these tragic occurrences and working towards efforts to reduce repeatability.
Liability Examined: False Reports Made in Good Faith
If you have made a DCPP report, you may be wondering if you face any liability if the report, fortunately, turned out to be a false alarm. Under New Jersey law, any individual making a report in good faith cannot be subjected to civil or criminal liability. The New Jersey Supreme Court has further clarified what constitutes a good faith belief or suspicion, explaining that such a belief “requires an objective assessment of whether given all of the facts and circumstances are known at the time a person similarly situated would have held a reasonable belief that child abuse had occurred.” L.A. v. New Jersey Div. of Youth & Fam. Servs., 217 N.J. 311, 316, 317 (2014). In other words, if you have a legitimate, objective reason for making a report to DCF, you cannot face any penalties, even if the concerns were ultimately unfounded. If you are facing any charges relating to an alleged false report of child abuse, New Jersey criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Team at the Lento Law Firm can help.
Liability Examined: Failure to Report
Liability can be imposed for individuals who were aware and/or were suspicious of child abuse but failed to make a proper DCPP report. Although reports of suspected child abuse should always be reported to DCPP, understandably, there may be some situations where the failure to do so was paved with good intentions. Perhaps you were trying to support a family member fleeing an abusive partner or concerned about the consequences that a report could have on a low-income family, etc. If you are concerned you may be facing charges for failure to make a DCPP report, it is crucial that you work with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help present your side of the story in a way that mitigates your liability.
Penalties for failure to report vary depending on the nature of the abuse. For instance, under N.J.S.A. § 9-6:-8.14(b), “[a]ny person who knowingly fails to report an act of sexual abuse against a child and who has reasonable cause to believe that an act of sexual abuse has been committed is guilty of a crime of the fourth degree.” Under N.J.S.A. §2C:43-6(a)4, defendants facing a charge in the fourth degree can face upwards of 18 months in prison. Failure to report other forms of child abuse such as neglect, or physical abuse is deemed a disorderly person's offense and carries penalties of upwards of 6 months in prison and/or $1,000.00 in fines.
Liability Examined: Malicious Reports
While it may seem unthinkable to knowingly lie about child abuse, there may be situations where individuals intentionally make false reports to DCPP. Some examples of malicious DCPP reports might include reports made by ex-spouses who are trying to gain an upper hand in custody cases or false reports made by neighbors, family members, or acquaintances that stem from feelings of resentment or revenge. If a false report has been made against you by an ex-partner or adversary, you likely have two major concerns: 1) What steps do I take to respond to a false DCPP report and 2) will the individual who made the false reports face any consequences?
Steps to Take After A False DCPP Report Has Been Made
Due to the confidentiality of reports and internal processes, DCPP investigations in New Jersey can be extremely challenging and complex. If you are facing a false accusation that was maliciously made against you, you should work with an experienced attorney who can help you gather evidence to prove your innocence. While DCPP cases are unique and adhere to specific procedural requirements, there can be significant overlap between a DCPP investigation and an associated criminal matter. Gathering evidence for both types of cases is crucial.
Perhaps the reporter made false claims regarding your child's absences from school or lied about your use of substances, etc. Examples of evidence that may refute the reported accusations might include medical records, your child's academic records, drug tests, text messages, employment records, etc. In short, if the accusations are false, work with an experienced attorney to help gather evidence and then trust that the evidence is on your side.
Will the Individual Who made the False Reports Face Any Consequences?
We already addressed liability for failure to report suspected abuse as well as well-intentioned reports of suspected abuse that ultimately turned out to be false alarms. But what about those unique situations where the reporter knowingly lied? It's important to note that the law works to encourage individuals to make reports of any suspected child abuse and therefore the state of New Jersey does not impose any criminal liability for false reporting in this context.
Individuals can, however, face civil liability through claims sounding in defamation, malicious prosecution, etc. For example, if an ex-partner makes false DCPP reports and publicly defames your reputation, they may face liability in a defamation action even if DCF concludes that the report was baseless. Again, while this may seem frustrating, the law is designed to “err on the side of caution.” To put the purpose of the law into context, if an individual knowingly made 6 false DCPP reports, DCF will still have an obligation to thoroughly investigate the 7th, 8th, 9th, etc. report that comes along. While this may not seem fair and it certainly can be frustrating, the law requires that DCF investigates the reports in the instance that the caller is credible, and their concerns are warranted. This does not mean, however, that you simply must stand by and do nothing as false reports are made against you. If you are facing one or multiple false DCPP reports, attorney Joseph. D. Lento and his Team can help you navigate how to handle the false allegations, prove your innocence, and most importantly, protect your child(ren).
Child Protection and Permanency Defense Attorney in New Jersey
There is nothing more stressful to a parent than the thought of losing their child or subjecting them to unnecessary, litigious drama. If you are navigating DCPP reports on your own, take the steps to have an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side! Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Team at the Lento Law Firm can help you navigate the complexities and concerns surrounding DCPP reports. Contact us online or by calling us today at 888-535-3686.