Being investigated by the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) can be a daunting and emotional time. The process has many steps, beginning with an investigation. It is always a good idea to consult with a lawyer if the DCPP pays you a visit. You have rights under the law, but you must also follow legal obligations. The following is a general overview of the process. Every case is different and may not follow the same procedures.
In New Jersey, a person can call a 24-hour hotline to anonymously report child abuse or neglect. It is a legal offense to fail to report an act of child abuse. This report is called a referral. Those who make referrals are currently immune from civil or criminal liability, including people who testify in court.
The central registry receives referrals. A screener then reviews them and decides if the allegations should be treated as a Child Protective Services (CPS) referral or a Child Welfare Service (CWS) referral. A CPS referral requires the screener to determine if the allegations are true. A CWS categorization means that the situation warrants a “potential service” for the child and/or family, but there is insufficient risk to justify an abuse or neglect investigation.
When CPS or CWS receives a referral from a screener, they must respond. The response time for a CPS referral is within 24 hours or immediately by the end of the workday. The response time for CWS referral is between 72 hours and five working days. The screener and local office manager have some discretion with timeframes.
This article will focus on CPS referrals only, as those are the cases that could potentially end up in court.
Each CPR referral requires the assigned DCPP worker to conduct an investigation. Investigators are not required to inform the accused when they will visit the home or reveal who made the report. Investigators need only notify the accused that an investigation of child abuse or neglect is underway.
When DCPP investigators make contact with the accused in the home, they will do the following:
- Look for cleanliness, review the child’s living and sleeping arrangements and availability of clothing, shelter, food, and water.
- Interview the parents, guardians, and any relatives or other persons living in the home looking for signs of abuse and neglect.
- Interview the child and their siblings.
- Look for signs of physical and emotional abuse on the child.
- May ask the accused to sign a release allowing access to medical records and other confidential information.
- May ask the accused to undergo evaluations or submit to drug tests.
During the course of the investigation, DCPP investigators may also:
- Interview immediate family and close friends living outside the home.
- Interview teachers, medical providers, childcare providers, or any other person who may know the child’s living situation and physical/mental health.
- Review medical and school records.
A caseworker must provide an investigatory finding within 60 days from when the central registry received the report. There can be a 30-day extension if the local office manager deems they need more time to confirm information.
A caseworker has four possible investigatory findings they will formally record after the investigation:
- Substantiated: There is abuse or neglect, and there is an aggravating factor.
- Established: There is a showing of abuse or neglect, but a substantiated finding is not warranted upon consideration of aggravating or mitigating factors.
- Not established: There is no preponderance of evidence of neglect or abuse, but there is evidence that the child was harmed or placed at risk of harm.
- Unfounded: There is no evidence of abuse or neglect and no evidence that the child was harmed or placed at risk of harm.
Resolution of Findings
With a substantiated finding, your children may be removed, and you will be required to have more contact with the DCPP. Your name will be added to the child abuse registry. Once your name is on the registry, it can never be removed. You can appeal a substantiated finding.
With a finding of established or not established, you will not be added to the child abuse registry, but the DCPP will keep your information on record. You can appeal a finding of established.
If the DCCP finds no evidence of abuse or neglect, allegations will be unfounded. Information will not be added to the child abuse registry. After three years, you can ask the DCPP to erase information from your files.
Regardless of the DCPP’s findings, the agency can require you to follow a case plan. Also, at any time, the DCPP can go to court to request a new order of investigation or order for care and supervision.
Not every case will go to the Superior Court. Appeals to findings of substantiated or established can be appealed for a trial before the Office of Administrative Law (OAL).
The DCPP can begin a court process for the temporary removal of your child from the home. You will be required to appear in court at a specified date and time. If the removal request is an emergency, you will have the preliminary hearing when the DCPP files the emergency complaint against you.
At the preliminary hearing, the judge will decide if the DCPP can continue with the case and whether the child should live outside the home. The judge may also order services for the parent or legal guardian, such as psychological evaluations and substance abuse services.
If the judge decides the case should go forward, discovery, or gathering additional information, will occur. There will then be a fact-finding hearing, which is the equivalent of a trial. Both sides present their cases. The judge will then decide if abuse or neglect took place. If abuse or neglect took place, a dispositional hearing will provide orders for the steps the defendant must complete, such as counseling or abuse treatment. You will have 45 days from the dispositional hearing to file an appeal.
If there are court-ordered services, there will be additional hearings to monitor your process. If the case stays open for more than a year, the court will conduct a permanency hearing to provide a permanent, stable, long-term living arrangement for the child.
Moorestown DCPP Lawyers at the Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker Help Families Understand the DCPP Court Process
Abuse accusations can be devastating. Anyone being investigated by the DCPP should understand how they can protect themselves. Contact our Moorestown DCPP lawyers at the Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker as soon as possible if you are being investigated by the DCPP. Call us at 856-795-9400 or contact us online to schedule an initial consultation. Located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout Haddonfield, Marlton, Medford, Moorestown, Mount Laurel, and Voorhees.