Mercer County DCP&P Attorney

Like every state, New Jersey has a public agency that is responsible for overseeing the well-being of minor children who live in the state. In New Jersey, that agency's official name is the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, although it is sometimes simply referred to as “the Division.” The Division has wide-ranging authority to accomplish its mission, and that authority includes the power to take your children out of your home.

Are you a Mercer County resident who is being investigated by the New Jersey DCP&P? The Division is legally authorized to remove your children from your custody on a temporary or even permanent basis. A Division investigation can also lead to criminal charges. It's a scary situation, but you do have rights, and The Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team can protect them. Call us at 888-535-3686 or contact us online today.

Child Abuse Is an Emotional Issue

Issues of parental abuse and crimes against children are incredibly emotional. There is a mountain of evidence that abused or neglected children are at an elevated risk of falling into dangerous behavioral patterns such as criminality and substance abuse when they reach adulthood. That's why the Division takes its mission so seriously and has been given so much authority to intercede when it believes a parent or guardian is endangering a child.

It's also why members of the public are encouraged to report any suspected instances of abuse to the Division. Unfortunately, that also means a complaint can be made against you anonymously by someone who thinks they have witnessed abuse, regardless of whether abuse has taken place. Once a report is made, the Division is compelled to investigate. However, the process is notoriously opaque and not necessarily geared to be impartial.

Division Investigations Are Not Impartial

Remember, the Division is not a law enforcement agency per se, and as such, their investigations don't necessarily follow the same path taken by law enforcement agencies. Their primary focus is not determining whether a crime was committed; instead, it focuses on whether you pose a threat to the child's well-being. That means they can remove a child from your custody without filing criminal charges. However, they can also refer cases to the police if their investigation uncovers evidence of criminal activity.

This can leave you in an incredibly confusing type of legal limbo if you're the person being investigated. For example, in a criminal investigation, law enforcement must advise you of your right to remain silent. Your decision to remain silent cannot be held against you. By contrast, your choice to remain silent during a Division investigation may be taken by the investigator as evidence that you have something to hide.

Your Legal Team Is Your Best Defense Against the Division

It can be difficult to know who to talk to, what to say, and when. That's why it's critically important for you to reach out to an attorney who has experience with Division investigations as soon as you discover they are investigating you. The Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team has extensive experience protecting the rights of parents and guardians through Division investigations.

Our mission is to help you make it through the investigation with your reputation and custodial rights intact. Remember, the Division investigation process is not designed to be impartial. Their primary loyalty is to the child's well-being. That means the Division is perfectly content to “err on the side of caution” by making an adverse decision against you if their investigator determines that is what's best for the child.

Do not simply assume that the right outcome will happen because you have done nothing wrong or the person who made the allegation has an axe to grind against you. Your custodial and parental rights are in jeopardy the minute the Division begins investigating you. With that in mind, it's critically important that you have an effective legal team that understands how Division investigations work and how to defend your rights.

Division Investigations Can Lead to Criminal Charges

The fact that the Division isn't a law enforcement agency doesn't mean a Division investigation can't or won't lead to criminal charges. If their case worker uncovers what they believe to be evidence that you have committed child abuse (or any other offense), they may refer the matter to Mercer County Law Enforcement. At that point, you will have not one but two investigations to defend yourself against.

This underscores the importance of getting our Criminal Defense Team involved with your case as soon as possible. The Division is notorious for popping up and announcing investigations without warning. They often prefer surprise tactics because it reduces the chance that the guilty party can destroy evidence or create a cover story. However, that could still jeopardize your rights, and that's why we strongly recommend you contact us before answering questions from the Division.

Mercer County Law Enforcement can also report what they believe to be child endangerment or abuse to the Division. That means they could be investigating you for a separate criminal offense but refer you to the Division for investigation. Once the Division has been alerted by law enforcement, they will carry their investigation through to a conclusion regardless of whether the Mercer County authorities file charges on the matter they were originally investigating.

How Division Investigations Work

Once the Division believes they have sufficient evidence to initiate an investigation, they will typically begin that process by scheduling a case worker or investigator visit to your home. The investigative visit has several purposes. First, the caseworker will want to assess whether the overall environment is safe for the child. If they find the environment is unfit, they will also want to assess whether the conditions they observe rise to the level of criminality.

Some typical steps a Division caseworker will take during a home visit include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Inspecting the home for cleanliness
  • Assessing whether or not there is adequate food, water, and other vital necessities in the home
  • Interviewing you and any other adults residing in the home
  • Interviewing the child and/or their siblings and housemates

They may also ask you to sign a medical release form that allows a licensed professional to conduct a medical examination of the child or review the child's medical records. In instances where caseworkers or investigators notice the presence of illicit drug use or alcohol abuse, they may also ask you to submit to drug or alcohol screening.

How to Handle Home Visits and Division Investigations

Never forget that a Division investigation is not impartial. The Division will always work in what it believes are the child's best interests, not yours. That's why it's so important to contact an attorney as quickly as possible once you discover the Division is investigating you. You have rights, and the fact that you're under investigation doesn't mean you can't protect them.

However, it takes skill and experience to walk the line between protecting your rights and not giving the Division reason to believe you have something to hide. At the end of the day, you want to maintain custody of your child. On the other hand, the division caseworker will look for reasons to take your child away any time they make a home visit. That's why your choice of attorney is so important.

The Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team will do everything within our power to keep the Division from trampling on your rights during their investigation. We will also use the full balance of our resources, experience, and legal experience to make the strongest possible case for why you should be able to retain custody of your child. Don't try to handle this process by yourself.

What Are the Potential Outcomes In a Division Investigation?

After completing their investigation, the Division's caseworker will assess the weight of the evidence and then make their final determination. This final determination must fall into one of four separate categories. From your perspective as a parent, these categories range in severity from the worst-case scenario to the best. They are as follows:

  • Substantiated- If the Division rules the allegation is substantiated it means they uncovered conclusive evidence of child abuse or neglect along with an aggravating circumstance. In a substantiated case of child abuse or neglect, the Division will forward the result (along with the evidence they uncovered) to the Mercer County Authorities for consideration of prosecution. They will also place your name on the New Jersey Child Abuse Registry. It will severely restrict or prevent your ability to have contact with any children, the elderly, or the disabled in any capacity. Your presence in the registry is a matter of public record that will appear on routine background checks or employment screenings. This is the worst possible outcome of a Division investigation and will have the most long-lasting and severe consequences.
  • Established- In this case, the Division caseworker has uncovered sufficient evidence to support allegations of abuse or neglect, but there are no aggravating circumstances involved.
  • Not Established- In this case, the Division caseworker finds that there was insufficient evidence to support a charge of abuse or neglect but that the child was exposed to some degree of harm or danger.
  • Unfounded-This is the best possible outcome. If the Division worker rules the allegations are unfounded, it means they have no evidence that harm came to the child or that you put the child in danger.

Each of these outcomes has a different effect on your ability to retain or regain custody of your children. No matter what the outcome, our legal team can work with you and the Division to chart the next step forward. Even in the case of an adverse result, we may still be able to formulate a mutually agreeable plan that will allow you to retain or regain your parental rights.

Aggravating and Mitigating Factors

Cases that are ruled as substantiated are among the most serious because they include an aggravating factor. An aggravating factor is a circumstance that elevates the case from an abuse allegation to a possible crime. Restoring your parental rights could prove to be more challenging in cases where the Division has ruled aggravating factors were in play. Examples of aggravating factors include:

  • Situations where the child died or nearly died due to the abuse or neglect uncovered during the investigation
  • The exposure of the child to sexually explicit images, material, or unlawful sexual activity
  • A previous history of abuse against any children, including those not in your custody
  • The denial of essential care that caused significant harm or could have posed significant harm to the child
  • The failure to take adequate and reasonable steps to protect the child from physical and/or sexual abuse
  • The failure by the parent or guardian to abide by court orders concerning the child's care or adhere to a child safety plan
  • The potential for long-term physical, psychological, or emotional damage to the child
  • A child with an elevated level of vulnerability or susceptibility to abuse due to their age, disability, or developmental capabilities

The Division is also required to recognize mitigating factors in cases of abuse or neglect. The existence of one or more of these mitigating factors could create an opportunity for the restoration of your parental rights or lead the Division to create a child safety plan that would allow you to retain custody of your children. Examples of mitigating factors include:

  • The existence of affirmative steps you had taken to remedy the situation before the investigation was concluded (e.g., hiring a professional cleaning crew to clean a home that was ruled as an unsafe environment or removing an adult who was abusing controlled substances from the home)
  • Exigent and unusual circumstances that created a sufficient level of stress or upheaval to precipitate an act of negligence or abuse that is otherwise out of character (e.g., extreme emotional distress due to a death in the family or economic adversity)
  • Evidence or the reason to believe that the abuse or neglect was an isolated incident with a low likelihood of repetition
  • The abuse or neglect uncovered was extremely limited in scope and severity.

Your Right to Appeal

Regardless of the Division's findings, you have the right to appeal if their decision is adverse or you disagree with it. You must request an appeal via administrative hearing within 20 days of receiving the Division's final report. The appeals process is not easy, but our Criminal Defense Team can help you prepare the strongest possible appeal and guide you through the process while also making sure the paperwork is properly filed.

Permanent Termination of Your Parental or Custodial Rights

If the Division orders the temporary removal of your child or suspension of your parental rights, you will have one year to rectify the conditions that led them to initiate the removal. If you do not remedy the conditions or meet the Division's requirements for restoration of your parental rights within that year, the Division may move to permanently terminate your parental rights.

This is not a step that the Division takes lightly, and a Mercer County Judge must sign off on the Division's request. For the Division's permanent termination request to be granted, they must be able to demonstrate the following:

  • A continuing relationship between you and the child would harm their emotional, physical, or psychological development
  • You have failed to remedy the conditions that were endangering the child, and you lack the ability or desire to remedy these conditions
  • Removing the child from the home where they are currently placed would cause the child to suffer long-term and continued emotional or psychological harm
  • The Division has made good-faith efforts to help you remedy the abusive conditions and exhausted any alternatives to termination of your parental rights
  • The termination of your parental rights will not cause harm that outweighs the benefits of terminating your parental rights

Don't Give Up Your Parental Rights Without a Fight

Finding out you are being investigated by the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency can hit you like a ton of bricks, and it's an incredibly scary situation. The Division has the authority to terminate your parental rights, but even within that framework, you still have the power to fight back. Don't wait to hire an attorney to protect your rights.

Your choice of attorney could have a massive impact on the outcome of your case. The Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team is here to stand up for your parental rights in Division investigations and guide you through the process from start to finish. Don't trust your parental rights to fate or an attorney who lacks experience in these matters. You deserve the best, and so does your child. Call our team at 888-535-3686 or contact us online today!

​​​Contact The Lento Law Firm Today

When it comes to criminal defense cases, you need the right person in your corner. To learn more about how Mr. Lento can help you, call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686. or contact him online.

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