What is the Least Restrictive Setting Rule?

September 3, 2020

The New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) aims to ensure the safety, permanency, and well-being of children and support families. The DCPP helps children and families stay together whenever possible. However, when a child is in imminent danger and the risk of injury or death cannot be alleviated by the family or DCPP, it may become necessary to remove a child from the home. In these instances, the DCPP must seek out the least restrictive setting for the child.

According to state statute, it is the public policy of New Jersey to preserve and strengthen family life. However, when deciding whether it is appropriate to preserve the family unit, the health and safety of a child is of paramount concern.

This means that whenever possible, decisions should be made with regard to the interests of the state’s public policy to keep families together. However, in circumstances where the child’s health and safety are at risk, the best interests of the child supersedes the interests of the general welfare.

What is the DCPP Investigation Process?

The DCPP typically investigates a situation within 24 hours of receiving a report of child abuse or neglect. It seeks to determine whether the child is in danger and what would be the best course of action. Interviews with the parents, home visitation, and psychological or substance abuse evaluations are used to determine whether the child should be removed from the home.

Children who are not deemed to be in immediate danger may remain in the home, although the DCPP may continue its investigation up to 60 days without requesting a 30-day extension. The assigned case worker will conduct a child safety assessment and may develop a safety protection plan with the parent, guardian, or legal custodian to avoid separating the child from their family. When such a plan cannot be developed and the child is in danger, the DCPP may remove the child from the home.

What Happens if a Child is in Danger?

The DCPP may temporarily remove children from the home if they are in imminent danger until a hearing is held. Once the agency has concluded its investigation, it will send a letter to the children’s parents, informing them of whether the allegations have been substantiated, established, not established, or unfounded.

If the allegations are either substantiated or established, it means that the DCPP found evidence of abuse or neglect. However, an established finding means that there are also mitigating factors, such as the isolated nature of the abuse or neglect or the limited impact of the abuse or neglect on the child.

A finding of not established means that although there is evidence of harm or risk of harm, it does not satisfy the statutory definition. Finally, if the allegations are unfounded, it means that there is no evidence that the child was abused or neglected.

Children Have a Right to be Placed in the Least Restrictive Setting

When a child is removed from their primary home, the state assumes the responsibility to safeguard the child. One of those decisions pertains to where the child will be placed once they are removed from the home.

When a court makes a decision that affects a child, including placement, the court must decide what will be in the best interests of the child. In making this determination, the court will consider various factors, such as the child’s physical health and safety and emotional well-being. The DCPP must also comply with the least restrictive setting rule, which states that a child must be placed in a setting that is least likely to restrict the child in terms of physical and psychological growth.

New Jersey recognizes that removing a child from the home can be disruptive and emotionally traumatic for the child. Therefore, the child must be placed in the most familiar, least restrictive setting. Whenever possible, the DCPP will place siblings together and keep children in their home neighborhood. Special arrangements may also be made for the child to continue attending the same school and participating in the same activities.

The least restrictive placement option is placement with a relative, either close or distant. When placement with kin is not possible, the child may be placed with a close friend who is not related to the child by blood or marriage but has a significant and positive relationship with the child. This offers the child a degree of familiarity and stability in an otherwise stressful situation.

What are the Duties of the Child’s Caretaker?

Once the DCPP determines that a child must be removed from the home, they will meet with the family before placement to discuss family dynamics and develop a plan that will best serve the needs of the child. The resource family must be willing and able to:

  • Assure that the child will be cared for and protected.
  • Support the DCPP’s case plan.
  • Participate in the legal process, such as the home study process and the licensing process.
  • Make a long-term commitment to the child in the event that it is not possible for the child to reunify with their family.

When placement with a family member or close friend is not possible, the least restrictive placement option is within a licensed resource family home. Besides that option, a child removed from the home may be placed in group or residential care.

If parents are encountering issues with the DCPP, it is important that they contact a lawyer to protect their rights.

Cherry Hill DCPP Lawyers at the Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker Help Families Determine the Least Restrictive Setting for Their Children

If you are facing a DCPP child custody issue, contact one of our Cherry Hill DCPP lawyers at the Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker. Call us today at 856-210-9776 or contact us online for an initial consultation. Located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey, including Haddonfield, Marlton, Medford, Moorestown, Mount Laurel, and Voorhees.

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