Whether you are married, separated, or divorced, if you have children, you can receive a visit from the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) if they have received reports of abuse or neglect involving your children and have opened a case on you. The DCP&P has the authority to remove children from homes in cases of severe neglect and abuse, and if a child is in imminent danger, case workers can remove a child without getting a court order first.
Married couples can lose custody of their children in a DCP&P case, especially if the case involves both parents. For parents who are already divorced, a DCP&P case can cause the courts to modify their custody agreement to include only certain custody or revoke their custody rights altogether. For parents still going through a divorce, a DCP&P case can greatly impact their ability to gain any form of custody of their children.
However, parents have rights, but some may not understand their rights or where to turn for help. It's important you understand how much authority the DCP&P has, what rights you have as a parent, and how you can assert those rights and fight to get the best outcome possible regarding custody of your children.
You also need to consult an experienced New Jersey family law attorney for help.
What is DCP&P and What Can They Do?
New Jersey's Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) is the agency responsible for protecting the safety and welfare of children in the state. DCP&P investigates allegations of neglect and abuse, and it provides important services, such as family counseling, substance abuse treatment, and other programs, to assist families and help ensure their children are safe, well, and have the basic necessities.
The DCP&P prefers to work with parents who are struggling to do the best for their children, and the agency does not want to resort to drastic measures immediately except in cases of serious abuse or neglect, or imminent danger. However, the DCP&P also has the authority to take legal action against parents or guardians, which can include:
- Modifying custody agreements
- Placing children in foster homes
- Terminating parental rights
Furthermore, the DCP&P must report cases of abuse or neglect to law enforcement, which can result in criminal charges against the parents in some cases.
Any criminal proceedings are confusing and frightening, especially if they involve allegations of abuse against your children, and you want to ensure you have an experienced and effective legal representation as soon as you receive a notice from DCP&P. Additionally, if you don't feel DCP&P made reasonable efforts to work with you on your case, the agency may have infringed on your rights as a parent.
No matter your case, you want to choose an attorney with both criminal defense and family law experience for any issues involving DCP&P to help you get the best results, and you can contact Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team for a confidential consultation of your case.
What is Child Abuse or Neglect in New Jersey?
Abuse and neglect refer to any action or inaction that endangers a child's life or well-being, causes them serious injury, or sexually exploits them. A child is any unemancipated person under the age of 18, and situations include putting a child at risk for serious harm, even if they suffered no injuries.
The most common types of child abuse are:
- Physical abuse – Refers to physically assaulting a child, causing any form of injury. The act must have been intentional, and the state usually looks for repeated patterns of abuse, however, a single action can also cause serious harm to a child.
- Mental or emotional abuse – Refers to actions that threaten or severely affect the child's mental, emotional, or psychological development. Typically, these forms of abuse happen over a period of time and show a clear pattern of harmful interactions and behaviors.
- Sexual abuse – Refers to any form of inappropriate sexual contact with a child. The state takes allegations of sexual abuse seriously, and sexual abuse is most likely to result in criminal investigations and charges.
Along with abuse, DCP&P can investigate allegations of neglect. New Jersey defines child neglect as a parent or guardian failing to provide proper care and supervision of a child, even though they have the necessary resources.
Allegations of neglect can arise in cases where homes are too cluttered, filthy, and unsanitary, or the children themselves appear unkempt or malnourished, among other reasons. Neglect can also lead to criminal charges in some cases, and you need to consult an attorney immediately if you face any allegations of abuse or neglect.
How Can a DCP&P Case Affect My Child Custody?
Although parents have an inherent right to raise their children, the safety and welfare of children supersede any parental rights in cases of abuse, neglect, or where a child is at risk. New Jersey courts typically consider numerous factors when determining custody, and DCP&P cases can arise in situations where the child is not the one being abused, but another member of the household.
If the person being abused is the other parent or some other member of the household, the court will have to determine whether the abuser also poses a risk to any children living in the home. In cases of actual child abuse, the abusive parent may lose all rights to custody and visitation, or they may be granted supervised visitation or other restrictions.
Parents do not have to be divorced to lose custody of their children because of a DCP&P case. Both parents can lose custody of their children if both are found to be parties to child abuse or neglect.
However, for parents who have divorced and have a child custody agreement, any allegations of abuse can cause the courts to re-visit the custody order and amend its terms. As a result, the abusive parent may lose all rights to custody and visitation, or they may receive severe restrictions and conditions.
Additionally, if allegations of abuse arise during divorce proceedings, and DCP&P determines abuse or neglect took place, it can have a detrimental impact on the accused spouse's ability to gain any custody of their children.
False Accusations of Abuse or Neglect
Sometimes, a parent may falsely accuse the other of abuse or neglect. This can occur in situations where the accuser is trying to seek revenge on the other for whatever reason, and it can also occur in contentious custody battles during a divorce where one parent is trying to obtain sole custody of their children.
False accusations hurt not only the other parent but the children as well. Most family experts believe children fare better after divorce if they have regular contact with their non-custodial parent, despite any animosity or ill feelings the parents have for each other. False accusations of abuse or neglect can wrongfully strip a parent of their custodial rights and severely impact their relationship with their children.
However, sometimes, a parent or other concerned adult may report alleged abuse with the best intentions. Perhaps the accuser reported abuse based on erroneous information they received or because they misinterpreted a situation as abuse or neglect when it was not.
Whether someone makes a report in good or bad faith, DCP&P takes all allegations of abuse seriously, and the accused parent may have a hard time defending themselves, clearing their name, and having their custody re-instated if it was taken away. It is sometimes easier to defend against allegations made in good faith rather than bad, but you will need to consult an experienced family law attorney in either situation.
How Drugs, Alcohol, and Mental Illness Can Affect Custody
One or both parents may abuse drugs or alcohol or suffer from mental illness. Substance abuse and mental disorders can certainly affect how a parent treats their children, and they can lead to abuse and neglect. But just because a parent suffers from mental illness or uses drugs or alcohol does not mean they are an unfit parent.
If you suffer from mental illness, you should seek medical and psychological help if you haven't already, and you need to work closely with your medical team to devise an effective treatment plan and get other assistance you may need. Likewise, if you struggle with alcohol or drug abuse, you need to get help and support for your problem and work to show that you can provide a safe and stable environment for your children.
In either case, you will want to provide DCP&P and the courts with this information to show you are aware of your mental condition and are taking steps to manage it. DCP&P and New Jersey family courts always want to do what is in the best interest of the child, and they may determine that removing the child from the home and cutting all contact with you may prove more detrimental, especially if you are getting help for your issues.
Important Things to Know About DCP&P
Because DCP&P has so much power and authority over your custody of your children, you need to keep the following things in mind if DCP&P has opened a case on you.
Case workers do not have to tell you they are coming before they show up. They can show up at your door to investigate without calling or notifying you in any way. DCP&P investigators can talk with you or any member of your family without a warrant, and they even interview your child in private without you around. They may also show up at your child's school to speak with their teachers or counselors.
Additionally, investigators may remove your child's clothing to assess and take pictures of injuries from alleged abuse, but they may not force a child of the opposite sex to remove their clothing. If a child gets upset about having to remove their clothing, investigators should only remove the child's clothes in emergency cases. Also, investigators should not resort to this if they know a doctor will examine the child soon, and they should respect the child's dignity and modesty in all cases.
DCP&P investigators may talk to your child's teachers or counselors without your permission, but not your child's pediatrician. To speak with your child's doctor and obtain any medical information regarding your child, investigators must have you sign a release.
The release will grant the investigator permission to get important personal information about your child from doctors and other healthcare providers. Although they can speak to your children's teachers, they may need you to sign the release to obtain copies of your child's private educational information from the school. Either way, it's important you understand what all the release entails and what types of information the investigator can receive.
To help limit the types of information the investigator can get, you can agree to sign the release, but only for certain information or specific timeframes. For instance, instead of allowing the investigator to be able to receive your child's entire medical record, you may only agree to information pertinent to the case or for a limited period of time.
You should also never sign any release or forms the DCP&P investigator requests before speaking with an attorney first.
What Happens After a DCP&P Investigation?
DCP&P must complete their investigations within 60 days of opening a case. They will then make a “finding,” which is a decision as to whether abuse or neglect occurred. They will then send you a letter detailing their finding.
DCP&P will classify the finding into one of four categories: substantiated, established, not established, or unfounded.
Substantiated means they found significant evidence of abuse or neglect, and you will have to register with the child abuse registry. The registry is not publicly accessible, but employers, adoption agencies, and other entities can search it.
A substantiated finding may result in the immediate removal of your children from your home and for you to have no further contact with them.
Established means they found some evidence of abuse or neglect, but not enough to substantiate the claims. The same holds true for a not established finding. DCP&P will not add your name to the registry but will keep your information on record.
An unfounded finding means they found no evidence of abuse or neglect, and DCP&P will remove your information from their files after three years.
You may appeal any substantiated, established, or not established finding, but you will need an experienced family law attorney for help.