Child abuse and neglect affect thousands of people in New Jersey every year. The impacts of these effects range from serious incidences to the inconvenience of having to defend an unjustified claim. These unjustified claims happen for a variety of reasons, and the involvement of mandatory reporters is one of them.
There's no doubt it's important to protect children from abuse or neglect in NJ, but sometimes, parents and guardians are reported when no abuse has occurred. This might happen if a child is bruised or falsely accuses an adult of abuse. Some kids are just accident-prone despite a parent's best efforts to protect them. You can't send a kid out into the world in bubble wrap, after all. Other times, kids may claim an adult hurt them when the adult didn't. Children don't always understand the impact of their actions, but if a child makes any kind of accusation, a mandatory reporter must report the adult to the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P).
If you're facing an investigation from DCP&P, you need to contact a family law attorney in New Jersey right away. It might seem like these cases are better suited for a criminal defense attorney, but child abuse claims themselves are not handled in criminal court. Family law attorney, Joseph D. Lento, can help you navigate the child abuse investigation process when you've been accused in New Jersey.
Who Can Report Child Abuse in New Jersey?
Anyone can report child abuse in New Jersey so long as they have reasonable cause to think that a child is being subject to abuse or neglect. Concerned citizens are urged to call the hotline immediately. When a child is in danger, it is, of course, important to alert the authorities as soon as possible, but this “act first, think later” response to suspected instances of child abuse can lead to inaccurate reporting. Better safe than sorry is a good mandate to follow when it comes to the health and safety of a child, but if you've been falsely accused of child abuse, it's still nerve-racking. If you can't defend the accusations, you could lose custody of your child and end up on the Child Abuse Registry.
Some signs of child abuse are obvious to reporters, while others are vague. The NJ Department of Children and Families provides four prongs of potential child abuse: physical abuse, physical neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional maltreatment. Within each of these four prongs, a child is likely to exhibit both physical indicators and behavioral indicators of the mistreatment.
Some signs of abuse, mistreatment, or neglect are more obvious. These include:
- Unexplained broken bones, lacerations, or bruises on a child's face, back, backside, or thighs.
- Burn marks
- Poor hygiene
On the other hand, there are signs that could indicate child abuse, or they could indicate a behavioral issue that the child may be genetically predisposed to exhibit. These signs include:
- Extreme shyness and fear of adults
- Acting withdrawn
- Acting aggressive
- Acting antisocial
These behavioral issues can, of course, indicate abuse, and an adult who reasonably suspects child abuse should call the hotline and report the abuse. If you're the parent of a child who someone suspects is being abused, you'll need to prepare to defend yourself against the accusations. More on that later.
Who is Considered a Mandatory Reporter of Child Abuse in New Jersey?
New Jersey is what's known as a “mandatory reporting state,” meaning anyone who suspects child abuse has or is occurring must notify the authorities. Failure to report child abuse is, in fact, a crime. Importantly, those who report suspected child abuse can do so anonymously and won't be held legally liable for misidentified cases of child abuse so long as the mandatory reporter acted in good faith.
You can see how a lot of mistakes happen. Not only must every person in New Jersey report suspected cases of child abuse, but they're committing a crime if they don't report the suspected abuse. Further, there are no real repercussions for mistakenly reporting child abuse unless the report was made in bad faith. Bad faith reports also occur. They tend to occur in child custody battles when one parent wants exclusive custody of the child. If one parent knowingly falsely reports the other parent for child abuse, they could be held civilly or criminally liable. Of course, it can be difficult to prove a parent reported child abuse in bad faith. If you find yourself in this situation, where you have to defend yourself against your child's other biological parent during a custody dispute, you need to hire a family law attorney right away.
Penalties for Failing to Report Child Abuse in New Jersey
Those who fail to report child abuse in New Jersey can be held criminally liable. The crime under which you will be charged is a disorderly person offense. A disorderly person offense may sound fairly benign, but it does carry some weight. Those convicted of a disorderly person offense may have to spend up to six months in prison and pay up to $1,000 in fines.
In addition to the potential jail time and fines, those charged will have a criminal record even if they aren't ultimately convicted. A criminal record can be a bar to jobs, housing, advanced education, and more. It can even result in termination from your job, particularly if your job involves children. For example, a teacher who's convicted of a disorderly person offense for failure to report child abuse is probably going to lose their job.
Ultimately, the stakes are high for mandatory reporters of child abuse in New Jersey. As discussed, everyone in the state is a mandatory reporter, so it should come as no surprise to learn how and why you might find yourself suddenly under investigation for child abuse. If or when you're notified of a child abuse investigation against you, you must contact a family law attorney in New Jersey who can help you demonstrate your innocence to the DCP&P.
Mandatory Reporting is Anonymous
While there are more penalties for failing to report than there are for falsely reporting child abuse, it's also important for those accused of child abuse to understand that reporting can be done anonymously. Accordingly, even if bad faith reporting is made, if it is made anonymously, there will be little or no recourse against the person who falsely accused you.
This is frustrating but remember: when you're working with a skilled family law attorney like Mr. Lento, you'll get your justice in the legal process, not through meeting your accuser face to face.
Understanding the Mandatory Reporter and Investigation Process in New Jersey
When a mandatory reporter, aka anyone in New Jersey, makes a report of child abuse, the process will operate as follows:
First, the caseworker who takes the initial call of reported abuse will ask for information about the identity of the child and the child's caregiver. They'll ask for information concerning the type of abuse or neglect thought to be occurring and when and where this abuse has allegedly taken place. The caseworker will also try to assess whether there is an immediate threat of harm. If the reporter says that danger is imminent, the authorities may intervene right away.
After the initial report is made, DCP&P will begin a child protection investigation within 24 hours. If the report was not made anonymously, the person who made the report might be contacted again for further information. The child protection investigation can be intimidating for parents and children alike.
What to Expect During a Child Protection Investigation in NJ
New Jersey law requires DCP&P to begin the investigation within 24 hours of the initial report, regardless of how serious the suspected abuse is. Below are some elements of what to expect during a child protection, the first phase of an investigation against you:
- No Warning: You are not entitled to any advanced knowledge of an investigation for child protection. DCP&P may show up at your house unannounced any time after the report of child abuse was made. This is often alarming for everyone in the home.
- No Warrant: It's important to remember that this isn't a criminal investigation; it's a child protection investigation. This means that you have different rights than you would if under threat of a criminal charge. The DCP&P investigators may enter your home without a warrant when they show up.
- No Arrest: Again, these investigations aren't criminal, and the DCP&P investigators are not police officers. They cannot arrest you. That being said, police involvement may occur if the DCP&P investigators find evidence of abuse.
In addition to the bulleted points above, you will find that the DCP&P investigators will interview your child in private. They may also speak with other adults who are regularly around your child, like their teachers or their pediatricians.
Also of note, sometimes the DCP&P investigators don't show up at your house. Instead, they show up at your kid's school and interview the child before ever talking to the parent.
The day after the initial interviews, a hearing will be held to determine what needs to happen. The court can decide:
- To dismiss the case
- To remove the child from the home
- To provide services intended to help the family
These child protection investigations move fast, and for a good reason. As we discussed, a “better safe than sorry” approach is best in instances of child welfare. Still, this can leave a parent's head spinning.
What if a Mandatory Reporter has Reported You for Child Abuse
Few things are more traumatizing than realizing your family unit is in jeopardy because someone has made an allegation of child abuse against you. There may be times when you and your family could benefit from helpful resources from the state, but the ultimate goal should always be maintaining the parent-child relationship.
If someone has reported you for child abuse or neglect in New Jersey, you first need to retain a family law attorney. You may not know that a report was made until DCP&P investigators show up at your house or at your child's school. You need to act fast because the investigations occur within 24 hours, and the hearing to determine the best course of action forward happens the day after that.
Importantly, you can request to have your attorney present during the DCP&P investigator's interview of you. This is recommended, especially if you're in the middle of a divorce in which custody has or will become an issue.
The Consequences of Child Abuse Allegations
Many parents don't realize that there's more at stake than the custody of their child as if that weren't enough. When the court determines child abuse or neglect has occurred, DCP&P will keep a record of it. Your name will be added to the state's Child Abuse Registry. While this isn't a criminal record, it is still a permanent record that can affect your ability to secure employment. It may also prevent you from regaining custody of your child or of adopting or fostering children in the future.
Once your name is added to the Child Abuse Registry in New Jersey, it can't be expunged. Unfortunately, this list is a permanent record that some employers can access. The best way to avoid having your name included on this list is to work with an attorney to ensure the claims of child abuse are determined to be unfounded.
Call Joseph D. Lento, NJ Family Law Attorney
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has vast experience helping families navigate allegations of child abuse or neglect in New Jersey. He understands that these cases have long-lasting emotional and financial consequences. Mr. Lento and his dedicated team at the Lento Law Firm are here to help guide your family through the process. To learn what options you have, call 888-535-3686 today, or contact us online today.