DCP&P's Investigatory Role
New Jersey Code Section 9:6-1 defines child abuse and neglect for purposes of the state's criminal and child-protection laws. New Jersey Code Section 9:6-3 makes child abuse or neglect a fourth-degree crime. But when you face child abuse or neglect allegations in New Jersey, your first dealings are often not with the police or courts but with a special New Jersey state agency entirely devoted to child protection. New Jersey's Department of Children and Families has a Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) specifically formed and staffed to investigate child abuse and neglect allegations. DCP&P is the state agency that arranges for the child's removal from the home and placement for protection when the investigation shows abuse or neglect. You may not initially get a police officer or law enforcement detective asking you questions and collecting evidence against you but instead face a DCP&P caseworker taking similar investigatory actions with similar investigatory interest and authority. You'll often deal first with DCP&P investigators and officials, not necessarily with police and prosecutors, although police and prosecution could come sooner or later because of the DCP&P investigation.
DCP&P's Investigatory Focus
When New Jersey's child protection agency DCP&P opens an investigation, DCP&P operates under its own rules and procedures, with its own investigatory focus. DCP&P is, in theory, supposed to protect the interests of the entire family. That theoretical commitment would include protecting the interests of not just the children but also the allegedly neglectful parent or parents. In a DCP&P investigation of abuse and neglect, you certainly have strong interests, usually to avoid the removal of your child or children and avoid abuse or neglect prosecution. But as congenial as DCP&P investigators may act toward you, trying to gain your confidence and disclosures, DCP&P isn't focusing on your interests. In practice, DCP&P is instead generally the accused parent's adversary. DCP&P focuses investigations on gathering evidence that incriminates the accused parent, not exonerates the accused parent. When you face child abuse or neglect accusations, DCP&P is your effective enemy, not your friend. Any evidence that a DCP&P investigation gathers, DCP&P will generally use against you to build an abuse or neglect case that may result not only in the removal of your child or children but also in criminal child abuse and neglect charges under New Jersey Code Section 9:6-3.
DCP&P Investigatory Authority
In New Jersey, DCP&P has the full legal authority to investigate child abuse or neglect, with or without law enforcement, prosecutor, or court action. DCP&P may even initially remove a child from the home without the direct involvement of other agencies and officials. Police and prosecutors may not initially be involved or, if they are involved, may not have enough admissible evidence to support a conviction of abuse or neglect. DCP&P officials may nonetheless initially remove your child based on less evidence or even on evidence that a court would not admit in a criminal proceeding against you.
DCP&P Investigatory Staff
DCP&P operates through a system of nine area offices. But DCP&P further maintains dozens of local offices throughout New Jersey. DCP&P offices are generally at the county level, but most New Jersey counties have more than one office, each office covering a different side or part of the county. When you deal with a DCP&P investigator, you are generally dealing with a local individual who knows your part of the county well, may reside there, and may have long-standing acquaintances or relationships with hospital or clinic personnel, school officials, daycare providers, local police, local court officials, and others who deal with child protection issues. Before receiving a report to investigate, your DCP&P caseworker may even already know something about you, your family, or others involved in your matter.
DCP&P Investigation Hotline
Hotline calls to 877-NJ ABUSE (877-652-2873), calls to or contacts with local law enforcement, or 911 calls often trigger DCP&P investigations. New Jersey's Department of Children and Families advertises a hotline for suspected child abuse or neglect calls. The Department further publicizes that New Jersey Code Section 9:6-8.10 mandates that all New Jersey residents report suspected child abuse. Some states require only certain professionals like physicians, teachers, and social workers to report suspected child abuse. New Jersey is among the several states that make all residents mandated reporters. Mandated reporters generally satisfy their obligation by calling the advertised hotline. New Jersey's Department of Children and Families further urges reporters to call 911 in the case of immediate emergencies. DCP&P investigators need not disclose to the accused parent or person the reporting person's name, and to protect the reporter against retaliation, will generally not do so, although the reporter's identity may become obvious during the course of the investigation, or the accused parent or person may already know who reported the allegations.
DCP&P Investigation Preliminary Information
The very first step in a DCP&P investigation is for the call screener to record preliminary information. That information can go a long way toward guiding the investigation's focus. Inaccurate or deliberately false preliminary information can result in the temporary removal of the child and even arrest or other harm, when abuse has not occurred, or the abuser is someone other than the affected parent. Child abuse hotline call screeners generally get the child's name, age, and address; the parent's name; the name and relationship of the suspected abuser, the type and frequency of the alleged abuse, the child's injuries, when and where the abuse allegedly occurred, how the caller learned of the abuse, the child's present location, the alleged perpetrator's location and access to the child, and whether the child is in immediate danger. Although the call screener will ask the reporter's name, call screeners must also take anonymous complaints. New Jersey Code Section 9:6-13 grants immunity to individuals making mandated child abuse complaints and grants them court relief if discriminated against for doing so.
DCP&P Investigatory Process
DCP&P investigations can vary depending on peculiar circumstances but generally follow a pattern. Knowing what the caseworker will do during the course of the investigation can help you prepare and respond appropriately, ensuring a fair and accurate investigation while protecting your own rights and interests.
First Visit to the Home
When receiving a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, DCP&P will assign a caseworker from the nearest local DCP&P office. The caseworker will go to the child's home where the caseworker will inspect the child's living, eating, sleeping, bathroom, play, and other environments, in some instances taking notes, video, or photographs as the caseworker feels appropriate. The caseworker's focus is in part on the safety, cleanliness, and appropriateness of the child's environment to gather evidence of neglect, including dangers like accessible firearms. The home inspection can also gather evidence of abuse, such as items allegedly used to threaten or injure the child or drugs or alcohol the parent may have used. The caseworker may also interview the parents, guardians, and anyone else at home, for evidence of abuse and neglect. The caseworker may also attempt to interview the allegedly abused or neglected child and any siblings or other children in the home while looking for and documenting with notes, photos, and video any signs of abuse or neglect.
Follow Up Investigation
At the first home visit, the DCP&P caseworker may ask the parent to sign a release form enabling the caseworker to inspect and copy the child's medical and school records and interview medical personnel and school officials. If suspecting drug or alcohol abuse in connection with the complaint, the caseworker may also ask the parent to appear for a test. It may thus be apparent to the accused parent that the caseworker will be pursuing a follow-up investigation after leaving the home. But you should expect a follow-up investigation even if the caseworker does not make these inquiries. Caseworkers have other means for getting records and other information from other sources outside the home. Caseworkers will often communicate with medical office, clinic, or hospital personnel, school personnel, other family members, and even neighbors, law enforcement officers, or others who may have made observations relating to the suspected abuse.
DCP&P will send a caseworker to the home within twenty-four hours of a report of suspected child abuse or neglect. You should expect the immediate commencement of the DCP&P investigation. DCP&P caseworkers are supposed to conclude the investigation within sixty days, so you should expect relatively diligent investigation action and conclusion. The sixty-day period ensures a reasonably timely conclusion to the investigation so that it does not hang over your head for an unduly long period. But caseworkers may extend investigations for thirty days and then extend an investigation again in additional thirty-day increments as necessary. An investigation that concludes that a child is in imminent danger will trigger an immediate court filing and procedure. Otherwise, a court proceeding may commence at the investigation's conclusion within sixty days. Once a court proceeding commences, it follows its own procedural rules and timelines that could last for months or even up to a year or more. But you should expect prompt notice of the court case and a hearing on an initial order within a few days, followed by a return date in about thirty days for the court to review its initial order.
DCP&P Investigation Response
When facing a DCP&P investigation, you should be watching out for certain things so that you do not inadvertently undermine your own interests. You need not and generally should not voluntarily speak with a DCP&P caseworker, surely not before retaining and consulting a skilled and experienced defense attorney. The caseworker, police, and prosecutors can use anything you say against you. You have a privilege against self-incrimination. Don't interfere with the caseworker's interview of your child or others. The caseworker has the authority to take that action. If necessary, ask to stand behind or near your child for your child's comfort. Above all, promptly contact, retain, and follow the advice and counsel of a skilled and experienced New Jersey DCP&P defense attorney.
Defense Attorney Services in DCP&P Investigations
New Jersey DCP&P defense attorney Joseph D. Lento can assist you with your DCP&P investigation. Retaining attorney Lento at your first notice of a DCP&P investigation gives you the best opportunity to prevent your child's removal, retain your child's custody, avoid further investigation and potential criminal prosecution, and preserve your reputation and record. Attorney Lento can guide you in what to do and not to do when responding to the caseworker's investigation and other actions of DCP&P officials. Attorney Lento can further appear on your behalf in court to contest any allegations and ensure that the court hears your side of the matter including reviewing your exonerating and mitigating evidence. Attorney Lento can also review with you DCP&P staff reports, consulting reports, and medical records to ensure that DCP&P and the court interpret them properly without holding them against you unfairly. You may also have religious freedom, child discipline, and other parental rights to serve as defenses to any abuse or neglect allegations. Your goal is to have attorney Lento's skilled and experienced advocacy show the caseworker and, if necessary, the court that you did not abuse or neglect your child and that your child's best interest is to remain in your care and custody.
Premier DCP&P Defense Representation Available
You can trust premier New Jersey DCP&P defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Defense Team for skilled defense representation because of the many clients they have successfully defended in DCPP investigations. Your care and custody of your child or children are worth retaining the best available DCP&P investigation defense representation. Call 888.535.3686 or go online now.