Protecting the well-being and health of a child is one of the primary responsibilities of any parent or guardian. If you suspect your child is being abused or neglected, you need to take prompt action to minimize the harm to your child and move them into a safe environment. If the abuser is a parent, modifying custody agreements or visitation schedules may be necessary.
While reporting suspected child abuse or neglect is essential, child protection laws should not be used as a weapon to gain the advantage during a custody dispute or to retaliate against an ex-partner. False allegations of abuse or neglect can do serious damage to an innocent person's life and reputation. They can also inflict emotional and psychological harm on the child.
Understanding how New Jersey handles allegations of child abuse or neglect, including how it may affect parental rights, can help you protect yourself and your child from harm.
Defining Child Abuse
Abuse and neglect are any action or inaction that causes death, serious harm or injury, or sexual exploitation of a child. In New Jersey, child abuse includes physical, mental, or sexual damage to an individual under 18 years of age. This may include situations that put a child at risk of serious harm, even if they do not result in injury.
Other factors can contribute to abuse or neglect. Mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse may result in abuse or neglect allegations if they interfere with a parent's ability to prove proper care, supervision, and protection.
The most common types of child abuse are:
- Physical Abuse Physical abuse is any action that results in an injury, minor or severe. To be considered abuse, the cause of the injury must not be an accident. While the state will look for repeated patterns of behavior, a single event, such as slapping a child, can be considered abuse.
- Emotional Abuse Parents have an obligation to protect a child's psychological health. When determining emotional abuse in New Jersey, the state looks at whether the actions threaten or have already caused delays in their mental, emotional, or psychological development. Emotional abuse is not generally a single event but a clear pattern of emotionally harmful situations and interactions.
- Sexual Abuse Any form of inappropriate sexual contact with a minor is abuse. The state has a vested interest in protecting children from sexual exploitation, and a criminal investigation or charges are likely to accompany any claim of child sexual abuse.
- Neglect New Jersey defines neglect as a parent failing to properly care for or supervise a child, despite having the necessary resources. Similar to emotional abuse, neglect can be difficult to prove.
New Jersey requires that all residents be mandatory reporters if they either witness or suspect a child is being abused or neglected.
Child Protection and Permanency
Located within New Jersey's Department of Children and Families, Child Protection and Permanency (CP&P) is the agency tasked with child protection and welfare.
CP&P investigates all allegations of abuse and neglect within the state. They provide other services, including family counseling and substance abuse treatment, to assist families and ensure child well-being. They can also pursue legal action against parents and guardians, including modifying custody and, in serious circumstances, placing a child in foster care and/or terminating parental rights.
Custody and Child Abuse
Parents have the inherent right to raise their children. The exception is when a parent abuses, neglects, or places a child at risk. In these situations, the safety of the child trumps parental rights.
New Jersey courts consider multiple factors when determining custody. One is whether abuse occurred within the household, either against the child or another member of the family. County probation departments will also perform risk assessments to provide the court with information on whether living with a parent puts a child at risk.
When child abuse is proven, the non-abusive parent may be granted full custody. An abusive parent or guardian may lose some or all of their visitations rights, or may only be granted supervised visitation.
If the abused party is not the child, the court determines whether the abusive parent or guardian poses indirect danger to the child. If the child is not at risk with that parent, the court will balance supporting the parent-child relationship via custody and visitation against protecting the victim.
Courts might also limit custody if residing with one parent puts a child at risk of abuse or neglect. While the parent may not be the abuser, their actions or circle of acquaintance may create situations where abuse or neglect can occur.
An accusation of abuse or neglect related to another family member can also potentially affect a custody arrangement, since it can be used to show that you have or will put your child at risk.
False Accusation of Abuse
Although rare, it does sometimes happen that one parent will falsely accuse the other of abusing or neglecting their children. The accuser might do this as a means of prevailing in a disputed custody plan, or to limit the other parent's involvement with their children. False claims can hurt children as well as the accused by curtailing their relationship with their parent or guardian.
If you've been accused of abusing or neglecting your child, you need to respond quickly. Start by hiring an attorney who can guide you through the process and advocate on your behalf.
Be sure also to document as much evidence as you can that shows your children have not suffered abuse or neglect at your hands. Eyewitness statements and other tangible evidence are crucial to disproving abuse allegations. At the same time, know that any statements you make can be turned against you.
Failure to address and disprove the allegations against you in a timely manner has serious consequences. You risk losing custody, visitation rights, and—if the allegations are serious enough—your rights as a parent. You may also want to consider other legal action. This could include a defamation lawsuit or even criminal charges. You need to do what's necessary to protect your reputation and your relationship with your child.
Good versus Bad Faith
There are two general types of false accusation: those made in good faith and those made in bad faith. Accusations made in good faith are usually from well-meaning individuals who mishear or misinterpret events. While these allegations create problems for you, the accuser's focus is on protecting a child they believe to be at risk, not on hurting you.
Bad faith claims, on the other hand, are an attempt to defame you. They're often malicious, stemming from a desire to harm and sideline you. These claims can be difficult to disprove since the other party has a stake in seeing them succeed, whether by limiting your custody or visitation rights, or otherwise damaging your relationship with your child.
Your approach to disproving the allegations against you will depend on whether they were made in good faith or bad faith.
The Role of Drugs, Alcohol, and Mental Illness
A former spouse or partner may use a history of mental illness or substance abuse to suggest you're an unfit parent. If these issues affected your ability to parent in the past, you need to be prepared to show that you're now able to effectively parent your child.
If you suffer from mental illness, work with your medical team to show how you're controlling your mental illness, whether you're taking any medications, or any other help you receive. If you've had previous issues with drugs and alcohol, show that you're in recovery or that any problems won't impair your ability to provide a stable environment for your child.
Mental illness or substance abuse issues, especially if you've received treatment for them, do not mean you're unable to parent your child. The court will sometimes find that limiting or cutting off a child's contact with a father, mother, or guardian causes enough harm to outweigh other considerations.
Family Law Attorney
Children need safe environments. If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected by a current or former spouse or other family member, hire a Family Law attorney as soon as possible to protect your child and minimize future harm.
If you've been falsely accused of neglecting or abusing your child, prompt action is important. You need to limit any detrimental impact these lies may have on your child, your relationship with your child, and your reputation.
An experienced family law attorney can help you determine what you need to do to ensure your child's safety. Together, you and your attorney can protect your child's interests and minimize damage to the parent-child relationship.
If you're dealing with a situation involving child abuse or neglect, or if you need help to resolve other family law matters in New Jersey, contact attorney Joseph D. Lento today at 888-535-3686 or online.