When it comes to the most stressful events in a person's life, divorce or separation is near the top of the list. Not only is the decision to split typically difficult and heartbreaking, but it also involves upending your life and dividing shared property. When children are involved, the situation can become even more contentious, with each parent wanting to maximize the time and influence they will have in the lives of their kids. Unfortunately, the threat of losing custody of their children can sometimes cause people to make hasty and potentially damaging decisions, such as one parent making allegations of abuse or neglect against the other.
When it comes to child custody cases, the well-being of the kids should always be the primary concern, and many laws and institutions are put in place to achieve this goal. However, allegations of abuse are used as a weapon in family court more often than many people think. While it is always important to report real concerns of abuse or neglect to the authorities, false complaints can cause very real harm to every aspect of a person's life – and to the child's life as well. If you have been falsely accused of child abuse by a bitter ex-partner, understanding why and how the investigation will take place can help you know your rights and fight back.
What Is the Division of Child Protection & Permanency?
After you are accused of child abuse or neglect, there is an official system of checks and balances in place to investigate complaints and ensure the safety of the minors involved. As in most states, New Jersey has a state-run organization to investigate allegations of child abuse. The Division of Child Protection & Permanency (DCP&P) is New Jersey's child protection and welfare agency within the Department of Children and Families. It aims to keep children safe, promote their well-being, and support families by investigating suspected instances of child abuse and neglect and arranging for the child's protection or family's treatment when needed.
DCP&P serves a very important purpose – protecting New Jersey children from abuse and neglect, typically by removing them from the custody of a suspected abuser and preventing them from having contact with that individual. If a parent has been accused of abuse, it may be grounds for immediate removal of the child from the home. Another way DCP&P may seek to keep children safe is by building a criminal case against the abuser because jailing an abusive parent is certainly an effective way to keep them away from a child. That's why if you have been falsely accused of child abuse and are facing a DCP&P investigation, you need to take this matter seriously. Contact experienced New Jersey family law attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team today.
What Might Cause You to Be Investigated?
If you have been accused of child abuse – regardless of whether the accusations have any merit or basis in reality – DCP&P is required to immediately launch an investigation to determine whether the child is in danger. In most cases, this process will begin extremely quickly – typically within 24 hours or less. The first step in any investigation involves DCP&P contacting a child's parents or legal guardian. This may happen within hours of a complaint being filed, so you will not have to wonder long whether you are under investigation.
In general, federal law defines child abuse or neglect as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” This may include activities such as parental substance use, human trafficking, and abandonment, which is defined as an instance when the child is left unsupervised, and the parent's whereabouts are unknown. The minimum standards set by the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act establish four primary types of maltreatment:
- Physical abuse: This is defined as a nonaccidental physical injury to a child caused by a parent or caregiver, such as punching, beating, kicking, shaking, hitting, burning, or otherwise causing physical harm. Spanking is generally not considered physical abuse as long as it does not cause bodily injury.
- Neglect: This is the failure of the parent or caregiver to provide for the child's basic needs, such as inadequate shelter, leaving young children unsupervised, allowing children to use drugs or alcohol, failing to provide food, failing to provide or withholding necessary medications or medical care, failing to educate a child or provide special education needs, and disregarding a child's emotional health and well-being.
- Sexual abuse: This is defined by the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act as “the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or interfamilial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.”
- Emotional abuse: This is characterized by a pattern of behavior that impairs a child's emotional development and harms their sense of well-being and self-worth. It can include excessive criticism, threats, and withholding of love or support. This type of abuse is usually difficult to prove.
While acting hastily is necessary in cases where children are at immediate risk, it can also increase the likelihood that the agency will make mistakes or jeopardize your constitutional rights. While DCP&P rightly believes it is better to be safe than sorry with regard to allegations of child abuse, this also gives the agency an outsized amount of power compared to other government institutions, as they tend to have limited transparency and often act first and ask questions later. In many cases, this can lead to violations of your rights not only as a parent but as a citizen-facing possible criminal charges. Experienced New Jersey family law and criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team can help you protect your rights through this challenging and oftentimes unfair process.
How Do DCP&P Investigations Usually Take Place?
Once an investigation has been launched and the parent or caregiver has been notified, things tend to move quickly. The first part of the DCP&P investigation must be completed within a 14-day timeframe, during which the agency checks out allegations of abuse and gathers evidence to determine whether a more thorough investigation is warranted. If the agency decides to move forward with a formal investigation, this must be completed within 60 days of the initial complaint, though investigators can ask for extensions if they can establish good cause for doing so.
During the investigation, you can expect DCP&P agents to interview anyone who is in close contact with your child, which may include family, friends, teachers, and other caregivers. These individuals will help them gain a clearer picture of whether the alleged abuse occurred. It is also common for investigators to use various types of safety and risk assessments to evaluate families and help them determine whether abuse or neglect has taken place. Investigations may also include examinations by medical and mental health professionals to gain a clearer picture of a child's physical and mental state.
Once the investigation has been completed, DCP&P will decide whether claims of abuse are substantiated or unfounded based on the evidence. In most cases, the parent or caregiver can appeal if the appropriate paperwork is filed within the timeframe of 20 days after being notified of the agency's findings. Additionally, if child abuse allegations are found to have merit, DCP&P investigations can be handed over to the police and become a criminal matter. If you are facing a DCP&P investigation, now is the time to seek legal counsel. Experienced family law and criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team are passionate about helping you defend your constitutional rights.
Potential Consequences of a DCP&P Investigation
The potential consequences of a DCP&P investigation can be severe and have a drastic impact on every aspect of your life – as well as your child's life. One of the most heartbreaking outcomes of a DCP&P investigation is the loss of custody of your child, which can be either temporary or permanent. In the most extreme cases, the court may deem a parent unfit to care for their child, limiting their time with their kids to occasional supervised visits or barring them from contact entirely. Even if your child is only temporarily removed from your care, the mental and emotional upheaval from this potentially traumatic separation can last for years and take a great deal of time and care to get over.
There are also impacts on your own reputation and future to consider. Even if investigators cannot find irrefutable evidence that child abuse or neglect occurred, they can still label findings as “established,” which means there are more mitigating factors present than aggravating factors, or “not established,” which means the child was exposed to harm but not abused or neglected. In both of these cases, DCP&P will keep your name on file, and the record cannot be expunged.
It is important to mention that in certain cases, DCP&P may contact law enforcement in an attempt to build a criminal case against an alleged abuser. In these cases, you could face drastic and far-reaching consequences that may involve jail time. When dealing with DCP&P, it is advisable to contact a family law or criminal defense attorney such as Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team as early in the process as possible to ensure the best possible outcome in your case.
Why You Need an Attorney to Fight Back Against False Allegations
Because DCP&P investigations move so quickly, it is easy for the rights of the accused to get shoved to the back burner. While ideally, the agency strives to strike a balance between the well-being of the child and the rights of the parent or caregiver, in fast-paced investigations, this is not always the case. Having an attorney present can ensure you have a knowledgeable advocate speaking up in your defense. Additionally, if you have been falsely accused of child abuse, you will need specific types of documentation to prove your innocence, and knowing how to record this evidence and present it to the courts can make or break your case. An experienced attorney can assist you in this process and help you and your family do what it takes to stay together.
In the event of false allegations of child abuse, it is also possible that you want to consider retaliatory legal action to protect your reputation and your relationship with your child, such as a defamation lawsuit against your accuser. An attorney can help you know where to begin and gather the appropriate evidence to start this complex and often emotionally taxing process. In any case, when facing a DCP&P investigation, you will want to act quickly – any delay can result in serious and life-altering consequences.
Your Experienced Attorney
If you are facing a DCP&P investigation, you are probably experiencing a wide range of emotions and heightened levels of stress. You already have enough on your plate – there's no need for you to undertake the legal aspects of a DCP&P investigation on your own as well. New Jersey family law and criminal defense Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team are here for you. They have helped many families through difficult times similar to what you are experiencing now, and they are ready to help you protect your rights and preserve your reputation and your relationship with your children. Contact attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm online or call 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation today.