It can be terrifying if you've had a visit from the Special Response Unit (SPRU) investigators from the Department of Child Protection and Permanency. People with the power to remove your children from your home may demand entry, demand to interview you, your children, and your family and friends, and upend your life with allegations that you've abused or neglected your child. The SPRU handles emergencies where DCPP believes allegations are serious and must be immediately investigated. That means you need a lawyer experienced in handling DCPP investigations right away.
What Does the New Jersey DCPP Do?
The primary responsibility of the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP), formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), is to protect children, investigating all reports of child abuse and neglect. DCPP does this through home visits and interviews with a child's household members, teachers, counselors, and physicians. When DCPP receives a report of possible abuse or neglect, the agency must begin a child protection investigation by the end of the day it receives the report or within 24 hours of receiving the report. After completing interviews and home visits, the agency will typically complete its investigation and make specific findings that the abuse or neglect is substantiated, established, not established, or unfounded.
The agency will find the allegation of abuse or neglect “substantiated” if the preponderance of the evidence shows that the child is abused or neglected as defined by New Jersey law. See N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21.1 (2012). The law defines an “abused or neglected child” as one whose parent or guardian:
- Inflicts “physical injury by other than accidental means,” causing “a substantial risk of death,” serious disfigurement, impairment of physical or emotional health, or impairment of the function of a bodily organ,
- Creates a “substantial or ongoing risk of physical injury,” which would “be likely to cause death” or serious disfigurement or loss or impairment of a bodily organ,
- Commits sexual abuse against the child,
- Fails to “exercise a minimum degree of care” in supplying necessities like food, shelter, medical care, and proper supervision, or inflicts excessive corporal punishment or unnecessary physical restraint,
- Willfully abandons the child, or
- Places a child inappropriately in an institution for a continued period, knowing that it may harm the child's mental or physical well-being or willfully isolate them from ordinary social contact.
The agency may also substantiate abuse or neglect allegations based on aggravating or mitigating factors, including:
- Institutional abuse or neglect,
- Failure to comply with court orders or a safety plan,
- The age, developmental status, and vulnerability of the child,
- Evidence suggesting a pattern of abuse or neglect, and
- The child's safety requires separation from the perpetrator.
N.J. Admin Code § 3A:10-7.5 (2013). However, for some serious situations, the agency must issue a finding of “substantiated” abuse or neglect, including:
- The death or near death of a child as a result of abuse or neglect;
- Subjecting a child to sexual activity or exposure to inappropriate sexual activity or materials;
- The infliction of injury or creation of a condition requiring a child to be hospitalized or to receive significant medical attention;
- Repeated instances of physical abuse committed by the perpetrator against any child;
- Failure to take reasonable action to protect a child from sexual abuse or repeated instances of physical abuse under circumstances where the parent or guardian knew or should have known that such abuse was occurring; or
- Depriving a child of necessary care that either caused serious harm or created a substantial risk of serious harm.
N.J. Admin. Code § 3A:10-7.4 (2013)
In looking at the allegations of abuse or neglect, DCPP will also consider mitigating and aggravating factors. Mitigating factors include:
- Remedial actions that you take before the conclusion of the DCPP investigation,
- Situational, extraordinary, or temporary stressors causing you to act in an “uncharacteristic abusive or neglectful manner,”
- Isolated abuse and neglect that is an aberration, and
- If the abuse or neglect had a “limited, minor, or negligible physical, psychological, or emotional impact” on your child.
If the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating factors, DCPP will find that the allegations of abuse or neglect are “established” rather than “substantiated.”
If DCPP finds that you harmed your child or put them at risk of being harmed but that there is no preponderance of the evidence to support the allegations of abuse or neglect, they may report that the allegations are “not established.”
If there's no preponderance of the evidence indicating abuse or neglect and no evidence that you harmed your child or placed them at risk of harm, DCPP will report that the allegations are “unfounded.”
What Is the Special Response Unit?
Sometimes allegations of abuse or neglect are deemed an emergency placing a child at “imminent risk of harm.” In these cases, the Special Response Unit (SRU) of DCPP will respond to abuse and neglect allegations on weekends, in the middle of the night, and on holidays. If DCPP shows up at your home after hours, on the weekend, or during a holiday, you should immediately be on guard because the allegations are serious. If the SRU believes your child is at “imminent risk of harm,” they can remove them from your home without a warrant, using an emergency Dodd removal.
What Is an Emergency Dodd Removal?
A Dodd removal is named for New Jersey state senator Frank Dodd, who worked to pass legislation allowing the emergency removal of a child from a home without a court order. But the law only allows a Dodd removal when the risk of harm to a child is imminent. “Imminent risk of harm” means that a parent or guardian's actions or inactions jeopardize a child's life or safety if the authorities don't take immediate action. The SRU or DCPP will typically only use a Dodd removal without a court order in three situations:
- There's no time for a preliminary hearing,
- If a child is visibly abused or neglected and they need to remove them from the home to avoid imminent danger to their safety, health, or life, or
- When they notify a parent or guardian of legal action against them for abuse or neglect. In these situations, DCPP may remove the child from the home for their safety before the preliminary hearing.
The court will hold a Dodd hearing within 48 hours of a child's removal from your home. DCPP will have to show cause for the removal and present evidence supporting the removal. You'll receive a complaint from DCPP stating why they removed your child and the next steps. You'll need a lawyer experienced in handling DCPP actions right away.
At the hearing, the court will address whether DCPP was justified in removing your child and, if necessary, where they should live temporarily. If the judge believes that DCPP's evidence supports the removal, your attorney can coordinate your child's temporary placement with relatives. If the judge decides your child can go home, your attorney may need to coordinate a safety plan with DCPP.
DCPP and the Police
If the SRU or DCPP's caseworker believes that your child is in imminent danger, they will involve the police to ensure they can remove your child safely from your home. Police presence at your home with DCPP does not mean you have committed a crime. However, sometimes DCPP will involve the police during or after the investigation if there is enough evidence of abuse or neglect. DCPP does not have the authority to file criminal charges. Instead, DCPP has ten days after the conclusion of their investigation to notify the police if they find that the abuse or neglect allegations are “substantiated.”
What Should I Do if the SRU or DCPP Comes to My Home?
As part of their investigation, DCPP will visit your home to:
- To look for safety concerns,
- Inspect your home for signs of drug or alcohol use or abuse,
- To interview your child, and
- To interview you.
You don't have to talk to DCPP, but once you do, you will have consented to the interview. It's always a good idea to speak to a lawyer first. However, you do have to let DCPP into your home. If you refuse, they can get a warrant, and the police may become involved.
How an Attorney Can Help in a DCP&P Investigation
- Investigative Visits If you know that DCPP is investigating your family, you should hire a lawyer as soon as possible. While DCPP will usually show up at your home or work to interview you without advance notice, you can refuse an interview without your attorney present. You also have the right to refuse to allow DCPP in your home unless they have a warrant or law enforcement present. You may choose to let them in, but you can still request that your attorney be there for any interview.
- Accessing Evidence Records that DCPP maintains are typically highly confidential and not released unless you can show why disclosing the records is necessary. Under the law, [a]ll records of child abuse reports […], all information obtained by the Department of Children and Families in investigating such reports, including reports received […], and all reports of findings forwarded to the child abuse registry […] shall be kept confidential and may be disclosed only under the circumstances expressly authorized [by this statute]. N.J.S.A. § 9:6-8.10a (2012). A skilled attorney experienced in handling DCPP matters will understand the best options to access evidence in your case that you need for your DCPP matter or a criminal case against you.
- Court Hearings In some cases, DCPP will file a complaint in Superior Court seeking relief after the investigation. When they do so, the judge will determine whether the child is abused or neglected under New Jersey law. However, the judge will just make a general ruling; they can't rule whether the allegations were “substantiated” or “established.”The law states that “[t]he Superior Court, Chancery Division, has jurisdiction to adjudicate determinations that a child is an abused or neglected child.” N.J. Admin. Code § 3A:10-7.5 (2013). You'll need an attorney during this hearing to ensure the best outcome.
- Appeals If DCPP determines that the abuse or neglect allegations are substantiated or established, you can appeal the determination and ask for an additional review with DCPP and then the New Jersey's Office of Administrative Law. With an appeal, you'll have the opportunity to challenge DCPP's findings and present additional evidence rebutting the finding of abuse or neglect. You can request an administrative appeal by submitting a written letter within 20 days after you receive notice of DCPP's findings. As part of this letter, you can request a hearing before an administrative law judge. If you're already involved in a court case with DCPP, you may be able to request this appeal through the court. However, the appeal process is lengthy and complicated. It can take more than a year to have a court hearing for your administrative appeal. To find out your options, you'll need an experienced New Jersey attorney well-versed in handling DCPP matters like attorney Joseph D. Lento.
Hire an Experienced New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney
If you're facing a DCPP investigation in New Jersey and you've been visited by the Special Response Unit or DCPP caseworkers, you need a lawyer as soon as possible. A finding that allegations of child abuse or neglect against you are “substantiated” by DCPP can rip apart your family and lead to a criminal investigation and charges. You need an experienced criminal defense attorney who is well-versed in handling DCPP and other family matters by your side, protecting your rights as a parent and an individual. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the skilled team at the Lento Law Firm have been helping people like you for years. Find out what they can do for you. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at (888) 535-3686 for a consultation.