Being investigated by the New Jersey Department of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) can be one of the most frightening things you will ever have to face as a parent or the caretaker of a child. While the Department exists to protect children, it can be difficult and frustrating when that system decides that you are the one putting your child at risk. It may feel like investigators are not listening to you, are actively antagonistic against you, or are only trying to take your child away.
If you are being investigated by the DCP&P, it is important to get help right away. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the experienced Criminal Defense Team at the Lento Law Firm can help parents understand their rights, DCP&P's obligations, and the potential consequences of a child abuse investigation. When DCP&P doesn't believe you, the department may move quickly to take your children from your care. Contact New Jersey criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento today and get the help you need to fight for your children.
How A DCP&P Investigation Starts
The Department of Child Protection and Permanency is tasked with keeping children and families safe by investigating reports of child abuse and neglect. A child abuse investigation begins when someone makes a report to the State Central Registry about alleged abuse, neglect, mistreatment, or abandonment. New Jersey's Child Abuse Hotline takes reports of abuse seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and forwards the reports of abuse to a local DCP&P field office for investigation.
Once a DCP&P field office receives a referral, it is required by law to investigate the allegation of abuse within 24 hours of receiving it. DCP&P is not required to inform parents of their investigation, and the parents or guardians have no right to know who made the complaint against them. As a result, it is not uncommon to be caught completely off guard by a DCP&P investigation.
What Happens During an Initial Investigation?
Having DCP&P investigators come to your home or workplace can be embarrassing and stressful. It is important to remain calm and level-headed when speaking with your investigator, no matter how shocked or angry you may feel. The investigator must tell you their name and give you their contact information, as well as the information for their supervisor. They must inform you that an allegation of child abuse or neglect has been made and is being investigated under New Jersey law and give you general information about the facts of the allegations.
You do not have to speak with the investigator and can request to postpone the interview until you have an attorney present. However, if you begin answering questions, you will have consented to the interview process. The interviewer will also want to speak to the child involved in the allegations and examine the place where the child is living. If the child is in active, imminent danger of injury or harm, the DCP&P investigator can remove the child from the home immediately and place them into foster care while the case is pending. If DCP&P does not find that the child is in active danger, the child may remain in their home or residential facility while the investigation continues.
What DCP&P Is Looking for During an Investigation
The Department of Child Permanency and Placement is looking for evidence of child abuse, abandonment, neglect, or cruelty under N.J. Stat. 9:6-1. The DCP&P can only get involved in a case of alleged child abuse if it meets the statutory criteria. The alleged victim must be a child under the age of 18, and the alleged perpetrator must be a parent, guardian, or custodian who is charged with the care of the child, like a teacher. Fetal abuse or harm to unborn children is not covered by New Jersey statutes.
DCP&P will look for evidence that the child is being harmed in a physical, mental, emotional, or sexual manner. Physical abuse includes non-accidental injuries to children that cause or risk causing serious injury, impairment, or death. It can also include excessive restraints, forced labor, and cruel or unnecessary punishments. Mental or emotional abuse can include neglect, failing to care for a child's needs, forced social isolation, allowing the use of drugs or alcohol, or abandoning a child. Child sexual abuse can include molestation, assault, rape, and many other forms of inappropriate sexual contact, as well as human trafficking and child pornography.
To find evidence of abuse, the DCP&P investigator will talk to the child and the child's parents or guardians. The investigator may also contact teachers at school, pediatricians, relatives in the home, and any other people who may have knowledge about the child's safety and well-being.
While parents may be able to refuse to cooperate with a DCP&P investigation at first, the DCP&P can force compliance with their investigation by having a judge sign an order to compel interviews. If you find yourself under investigation by the DCP&P, it is important to contact attorney Joseph D. Lento as soon as possible. Our experienced criminal defense team can help you cooperate with an investigation in a way that does not jeopardize your rights.
How DCP&P Makes a Finding About Abuse Allegations
The DCP&P will look at all of the facts and circumstances regarding an allegation of abuse or neglect. The investigator will consider your interview, your child's interview, the state of the child's living situation, the child's physical and mental well-being, and a variety of other factors when deciding whether the child should be left in your care.
DCP&P investigations end when the agency makes a finding on the allegations of abuse. In New Jersey, there are four findings from which the DCP&P can choose:
- Not Established
To make a finding, the DCP&P must decide if there is a preponderance of the evidence that the abuse occurred. In plain English, this means that investigators will decide if the evidence and circumstances show that it is more likely than not that the child was abused under the definition of the law.
If there is a better probability that the child was not abused or neglected, then the investigators can choose to resolve the case as unfounded or not established. Both statuses reflect that there was no preponderance of the evidence showing the statutory requirements for abuse. In an unfounded allegation, there is no evidence that the child was put in danger. In a not established allegation, there is evidence that the child may have been placed in harm's way but that the situation did not rise to the statutory definition of abuse or neglect.
When an investigation shows that it is more probable that the allegations of abuse or neglect are legitimate and justified, the DCP&P can enter a finding of established or substantiated. Both of these findings have serious consequences for parents, guardians, and custodians.
When They Don't Believe You: Established and Substantiated Allegations
There are many situations where a DCP&P may not accept a parent or guardian's explanation of what happened to cause the report of child abuse. When there is a conflict between the parent and child's recollection of events, visible signs of injury or neglect, or other concerning elements that warrant further investigation into a child's home life, investigators may resolve the case as either substantiated or established.
Substantiated and established allegations are the most serious findings for parents and guardians. These classifications both mean that the evidence shows that it is probable that the child is being abused or neglected under New Jersey law. However, there are differences between the two classifications and different consequences for each.
An established finding of child abuse means that it is more likely than not that a child was being abused or neglected under New Jersey law. However, there are also enough mitigating factors that substantiation is not warranted. For example, a child might have been neglected by one parent after the death of the other parent. Because that is an extraordinary and isolated event, it may not justify the severe consequences of a substantiated finding of child abuse.
Established findings of child abuse are not reported on New Jersey's Child Abuse Registry Information, but the findings are kept on file with the agency. If there are repeated child abuse investigations into the same parents or guardians, established findings can be changed to substantiated findings if DCP&P believes that circumstances warrant it.
A substantiated finding of child abuse is the most serious option that DCP&P can choose. Substantiated means that DCP&P has found proof of child abuse or neglect and that aggravating factors warrant intervention from the state. Some circumstances are absolutely substantiating, meaning that the finding will be substantiated no matter what mitigating factors exist. Absolute substantiating factors include evidence that a parent or guardian is depriving the child of necessary care, evidence of repeated physical abuse, evidence that the child is being sexually abused or exposed to sexual abuse, or evidence of serious injury, hospitalizations, deaths, or near deaths at the hands of the parent or caregiver.
Substantiated findings are reported on the state's Child Abuse Registry Information and names added to that registry cannot be removed. In addition, any evidence of child abuse in both established and substantiated findings is turned over to police and prosecutors for investigation.
What Happens After a DCP&P Investigation?
What happens during and after a DCP&P investigation can be chaotic and confusing. Waiting for the results of the investigation can be nerve-wracking, especially when custody of your children is at stake. Though the circumstances differ with every case, DCP&P frequently takes several courses of action.
Notification & Agency Records
In most cases, DCP&P is required to end its investigation within 60 days. At that time, the people subject to the investigation will be notified of the finding via letter. If the finding is anything but unfounded, the agency will retain the parent's or guardian's records in their files. If the finding is substantiated, the parent or guardian will be permanently added to the state's Child Abuse Registry Information. Parents or anyone subject to the finding have the right to appeal the decision to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court.
Referral to Services
Regardless of what finding the DCP&P makes about your situation, it is possible that the investigator could refer a parent or child to certain family services. Parents could be required to follow a case plan, complete alcohol or drug treatment, undergo counseling or therapy, or improve their living situation. These services may be required even if DCP&P does not find evidence of abuse or neglect.
Removal of Children
DCP&P has the power to remove children from a person's custody or care and place them into the foster system. This can happen immediately if the children are in imminent danger or may happen later on if parents or guardians fail to address DCP&P's concerns about the child's safety.
When children are removed, parents have the right to attend a hearing on the matter within two days of their removal. They have the right to be represented at these and future hearings by a criminal defense attorney. At the Lento Law Firm, attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped many parents at hearings like these to fight to keep their kids out of the foster care system.
Reporting to Child Abuse Registry
New Jersey's Child Abuse Registry is a statewide program that aims to provide state agencies, employers, and law enforcement organizations with information related to individuals who may pose a risk to children or vulnerable people. A person appearing on the Registry might not be able to find employment in fields that work with children or the elderly, be a foster parent, or adopt children. Only substantiated child abuse reports are included in the Child Abuse Registry.
Referral to Prosecutors
If DCP&P find substantiated or established evidence of child abuse or neglect, they are required to turn over their findings to prosecutors for prosecution. The prosecutor may have police continue to investigate the allegations of child abuse outside of the DCP&P, and can use any evidence they collect when deciding whether or not to pursue criminal charges.
While DCP&P investigators are not police officers, they work closely with law enforcement and share information freely. As a result, it is not uncommon for relatively routine DCP&P investigations to turn into criminal cases quickly. For that reason, it is important to retain New Jersey criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento as soon as a DCP&P investigation into your family begins. We will be with you every step of the way to guard your rights and protect your family's safety.
Get Experienced Legal Help with DCP&P Investigations
Being investigated for child abuse, neglect, abandonment, or cruelty is an overwhelming and frightening experience. Having strangers come into your home to evaluate your lifestyle, your parenting abilities, and the well-being of your children can be degrading and infuriating and leave you feeling powerless. Even unfounded allegations of child abuse can be damaging both personally and professionally and may have ramifications on your life for years to come.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed when investigators first knock on your door. That's why you need the help of experienced criminal defense professionals who can help you keep a cool head and clear mind throughout the DCP&P investigation. At the Lento Law Firm, our team of New Jersey criminal defense professionals understands that allegations of child abuse or neglect can be complicated and can spiral out of control quickly. Retain Joseph D. Lento today, and rest assured that your family's safety and well-being are in capable and experienced hands. Call 888.535.3686 now to schedule your appointment.