If your family is going through an investigation for abuse or neglect from the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), you know the process is frightening and anxiety-inducing. You may be worried about how the investigation will go and whether you might lose your children. But one thing you shouldn't have to worry about is your ability to get a full and fair hearing in Court and your right to appeal any adverse action against you and your family.
A seminal case from 2002, the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. J.Y., illustrates how these procedures guard your due process parental rights. To protect your rights in a court case initiated by DYFS, the Court must follow established court rules and procedures. But you need the experienced Criminal Defense Team at the Lento Law Firm to ensure protection of your rights. Call them today at 888-535-3686.
The DYFS Investigation
In the J.Y. case mentioned above, DYFS initiated a neglect and abuse proceeding against three parents, J.Y., E.M., and A.J. J.Y. was the mother of three children ages 6, 4, and 3. E.M. was her partner at the time of the litigation and the father of the two youngest children. A.J. was the oldest child's father and had a history of domestic violence. At the time of the final court action under appeal, A.J. was in prison, serving a long sentence.
In all its forms, the family had been the subject of several DYFS investigations, all of which were dismissed. But in 2000, J.Y. was hospitalized and left the children with a neighbor. When DYFS became aware of the situation, they intervened. The mother agreed to transfer legal custody to the agency temporarily, and they placed the children with a maternal aunt and their maternal grandmother. DYFS later initiated neglect and abuse actions against all three parents based on injuries and allegations from the children.
The New Jersey Superior Court Case
The court process was long, factually, and procedurally complex, with the judge ultimately granting legal custody of all three children to a maternal aunt. The Court's order stated:
. . . the Court having read the verified complaint, affidavits and other supporting documents, the Court therefore determines that the removal of the child(ren) is necessary to avoid ongoing risk to the life, safety or health of the child(ren), because . . . [a blank area is provided for the judge to state the reasons] and for the other reasons stated on the record.
In the blank area of the order, there was a handwritten note stating "8A-O of complaint." The order contained no other indication of the reasoning for the ruling and was apparently an attempt by the judge to incorporate "allegations contained in paragraph 8, sections A-O of the verified complaint" as the basis of the order. The form also contained a series of six checkboxes related to DYFS's legal obligation to use "all reasonable efforts to prevent placement prior to seeking the involuntary removal of the children." The judge checked off the first box, which stated:
The Court has determined that reasonable efforts to prevent placement prior to removal were made, as indicated in paragraphs [blank area is provided] of the attached complaint.
In the blank, the judge again wrote "8A-O of complaint." The order didn't contain any other reasoning for the Court to grant this emergency ex parte relief.
J.Y.'s attorney also seemed to indicate that J.Y. would be responsible for meeting with DYFS and developing a plan to reunify with her kids, and the judge seemed to adopt this position in court transcripts. However, under New Jersey law, DYFS must "employ all necessary resources to bring about family reunification." The judge ordered that legal custody remain with DYFS and physical custody remain with the relatives despite making no factual findings or hearing any "competent evidence."
At a court event in August of 2001, all three kids lived with their maternal aunt despite an earlier court order splitting the kids between the grandmother and aunt. It didn't appear that DYFS sought judicial approval before moving the children. Although the Court refers to a progress report filed by DYFS that dealt with the kids' adjustment to their new foster home, the report was never admitted into evidence, making it unavailable for review on appeal. At this hearing, the judge also asked the attorneys to get stipulations from their clients that the abuse and neglect charges were "founded." After a brief stipulation, the parties stipulated to one "unspecified allegation" from the complaint. The judge then indicated that all DYFS's actions up to this point were justified with the stipulation, meeting the statutory requirements.
The parties' stipulation agreement contained no specifics about the abuse and neglect allegations. The court proceedings also contain no record of J.Y.'s psychology appointments or witness testimony about DYFS reports. At a court hearing in October, DYFS moved to transfer legal custody to the aunt, and the judge ruled on this with no evidentiary hearing. Rather, DYFS indicated that J.Y. wasn't keeping appointments with her psychologist and couldn't find an apartment, with the judge again considering an "unidentified" report that wasn't entered into evidence and, therefore, wasn't available on appeal. After transferring legal custody of all three children to the maternal aunt, the judge dismissed the abuse and neglect case from further litigation.
Two of the three parents, J.Y. and E.M., appealed the judge's decision to the Superior Court Appellate Division. The appeals court reversed the trial court's decision, reminding us that parents "have a fundamental constitutional right to raise their children," and stated that to remove a child from the legal custody of a parent, the Court must exercise "scrupulous adherence to procedural safeguards." These procedures help protect parental rights, but they also protect children from unnecessary emotional upheaval and trauma:
Failure to perform the fact-finding duty `constitutes a disservice to the litigants, the attorneys and the appellate court.' unless the judge sets forth the reasons for his or her opinion. In the absence of reasons, we are left to conjecture as to what the judge may have had in mind.
In this case, the appeals court found that the family court "completely disregarded" its responsibilities to follow procedural safeguards. To sustain or dismiss a neglect and abuse complaint, the Court must meet one of the criteria set in New Jersey law:
- DYFS must establish facts supporting the complaint, and the order should state the grounds for a finding of abuse or neglect.
- If the facts aren't specifically supported as stated in the complaint, the Court can amend them, but the respondent must be given time to answer the amended allegations.
- If the facts aren't sufficient to establish abuse or neglect, or the Court decides its help isn't needed, the Court should dismiss the complaint, stating the grounds for doing so.
- If the Court finds abuse and neglect, the judge should determine whether an order is needed to protect the child's interests based on the fact-finding hearing or facts presented in Court. If so, the Court must state its grounds for the order.
The Court pointed out that DYFS only substantiated one of the 16 allegations of abuse and neglect the agency made, doing so by stipulation of the parties. Before the current charges of abuse and neglect, "although DYFS confirmed that the children were subjected to deplorable living conditions, it did not initiate any legal action to remove them from their parents' custody or assist the family to find suitable housing." But the appeals court found that the charge of abuse and neglect in the complaint at hand is "totally lacking in crucial details and does not, on its face, support a finding of abuse or neglect within the meaning of" New Jersey law.
The appeals court also admonished the family court for:
- Depriving the appellate Court of a complete record for appeal by failing to identify documents for the record and failing to enter them into evidence,
- Allowing attorneys to make factual statements instead of hearing sworn witness testimony,
- Allowing caretakers and others interested to "casually address the court on material issues of fact without being sworn as witnesses or subjected to cross-examination."
While trial courts have wide latitude in exercising their power over the courtroom, the judge must comply with the procedures and formality needed to "take evidence and render findings." The fact-finding hearing is a crucial part of an abuse and neglect action, and the appeals court stated:
Judicial findings based on unspecified allegations, hearsay statements, unidentified documents and unsworn colloquy from attorneys and other participants erodes the foundation of the twin pillars upon which the statute rests: (1) that no child should be exposed to the dangers of abuse or neglect at the hands of their parent or guardian; and, commensurately, (2) that no parent should lose custody of his/her child without just cause.
The appellate division remanded the case to the family court for proceedings following their ruling.
You Need a Skilled New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney
If you and your family are facing an investigation or allegations of neglect and abuse from DYFS in New Jersey, you need legal advice right away. A DYFS investigation can have serious consequences for your children and your family. You need help from the Criminal Defense Team at the Lento Law Firm. They've been protecting the rights of families like yours in New Jersey for years, and they can help you, too. Call the team today at 888-535-3686 or schedule your consultation online.