For most parents, facing false or exaggerated accusations of abusing or neglecting their children is stressful and emotionally draining. When these accusations involve child services and investigators who do not believe the accused's version of events or evidence, an already stressful situation can seem like a nightmare.
In New Jersey, the Department of Children and Families, Child Protection and Permanency (CP&P) handles allegations of abuse and neglect of children. Understanding how CP&P handles investigations, what New Jersey defines as child abuse or neglect, and the potential fallout from an investigation can help you decide how to proceed.
If you're facing an investigation by CP&P, you need to hire qualified legal counsel. The Lento Law Firm specializes in New Jersey Family Law and can help you navigate this situation in a way that will assist both you and your children.
The High Cost of False Accusations
When first accused of behavior that triggers a CP&P investigation, you may be tempted to not take it seriously. You know the allegations are wrong, and you trust that once you speak with authorities, they'll believe you and close the case.
No matter how outlandish an accusation may seem, no matter how convinced you are that someone will see what a good parent you are as soon as they speak with you, you need to take any and all accusations seriously from the start. If nothing else, consider the high stakes of a CP&P investigation.
A CP&P investigation could lead to reduced or supervised visitation, reduced custody, or even losing custody altogether. It may affect your ability to find employment or where you live. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, it could affect other rights or lead to criminal charges.
Even if more serious consequences are unlikely to occur, you need to focus on how this investigation and the accusations against you will affect the involved children. Reduced custody or supervised visitation could negatively affect your children as well as deprive them of a relationship with a loving parent.
You need to take all accusations of child abuse and neglect seriously, not only for yourself but also for your children. You should hire an experienced family law attorney, one who specializes in child custody and child abuse and neglect, as soon as possible. Do not assume that CP&P will believe you simply because you know that you are innocent.
What is Child Abuse or Neglect?
In New Jersey, you do not have to cause physical harm to be guilty of child abuse or neglect. The state defines child abuse as the physical, mental, or emotional harm, including sexual exploitation, to anyone under 18 years of age. Neglect is failing to provide necessary support and care for anyone under 18 years of age and for whom an adult has a duty of care.
That parents or guardians lack resources or money does not make them guilty of neglect. Neglect and emotional abuse can be the most difficult to prove but are generally shown through a series of events or patterns of behavior.
Putting a child at a significant risk of harm, even if no injury occurs, can also lead to a CP&P investigation. In simplified terms, anything a parent or guardian does that puts a child's well being at risk could be considered abuse or neglect.
Different Types of Accusations
In New Jersey, all residents are required to report any witnessed abuse or neglect of children. The state requires that investigators look into any suspected abuse or neglect within 24 hours of receiving a report. An initial report does not require any proof. The state also allows for anonymous reporting.
Even if not required, individuals may feel obligated to report individuals to CP&P out of a genuine desire to help children. These are known as good faith accusations. These individuals believe they are supporting children and helping to protect them from harm. The problem occurs when they report behavior or actions that have been taken out of context or misinterpreted.
In contrast, bad faith accusations are designed to hurt the parent or guardian rather than support children. Bad faith accusations are most common when parents are arguing over custody and often stem out of a desire to limit or end an adult's relationship with a child.
Another difference between good and bad faith accusations is subsequent liability. Good faith accusations are immune from criminal or civil liability. Bad faith accusations, if proven, may open up the responsible party to both criminal and civil action.
Why Motive Matters
Knowing the reason someone reported suspected abuse or neglect can help you and your legal team build a defense. In cases of good faith accusations, the involved adults are concerned about the children. When their identity is known, they are more likely to work with both authorities and parents and guardians.
Bad faith accusations, however, can be difficult to overcome. The other side isn't interested in settling on a compromise or protecting children. They are out to hurt the accused. Exaggerating events, lying, and even doctoring evidence may be some of the more extreme behaviors seen in these situations. It can also make disproving these claims more difficult, especially if people enlist the help of other adults to speak against you.
Regardless of the nature of accusations, you'll be well served by hiring an experienced legal team as the Lento Law Firm. They can help you understand the nature of the accusations against you and the best way to proceed to find a resolution beneficial to both you and your children.
You've been reported for abuse or neglect. The initial investigation or interview has not gone your way. CP&P investigators do not believe your version of events. You may be feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. You may be unsure how to explain the situation to your children or how to comfort them, especially if your custody or visitation has been reduced.
First: No matter how frustrated you are, try to keep a cool head. Getting angry or otherwise emotional, while understandable, may end up suggesting that there is some truth to the accusations.
Staying calm is one reason why, if you haven't already, you need to hire an experienced attorney. An attorney will not only provide legal guidance but can help you understand your situation from a logical rather than emotional viewpoint.
What to Do
Be honest. If the allegations against you come from a former spouse or partner, it may be tempting to sink to their level and return false allegations with accusations against them. Avoid this impulse and take the high road, difficult as it might be.
Exaggerating events, deliberate omission of facts, and outright lying may be tempting in the short term but it can open you up to liability and potentially strengthen the case against you. It could also provide actual evidence of why you are an unfit parent.
Even if CP&P does not believe you, continue to compile evidence and locate witnesses. The more evidence you can provide to support your version of events and to show why CP&P should believe you, the sooner you can end this chapter of your life and move forward with your children.
Types of Evidence
If the accusations suggest physical abuse, submit medical records that disprove the claims. In some cases, school records may help disprove claims of mental or emotional abuse. If accused of neglect, provide bank statements that refute that claim (with the caveat that financial support alone does not disprove neglect).
If you know someone is misrepresenting events or lying, do what you can to highlight that they are not reliable. Show that the person reporting the child abuse or neglect should not be trusted to convey the truth.
When dealing with bad faith accusations or false allegations, an experienced legal team, such as the Lento Law Firm, can help you build a case that undermines another person's evidence and statements. This includes avoiding improperly gathered evidence that could undermine your case.
Again: don't underestimate the importance of honesty on your part throughout this process.
No parent is perfect. In dark moments, this may mean that a parent or guardian yells or even strikes a child out of anger. These behaviors are not acceptable, and most parents regret them as soon as they occur. Depending on when, where, and how these low points of parenting occur, they may be used to argue that a parent is unfit.
You need to be prepared to explain your actions and offer evidence against them. Highlighting that these moments are an exception can be especially important when dealing with bad faith accusations. Someone who wants to defame you may use this low point as the foundation for their case against you, suggesting an isolated incident is actually part of a larger pattern of poor behavior.
While it can be tempting to lie or deny these moments of weakness, you should be honest with both investigators and your legal team. Your legal team has a duty of confidentiality to its clients, which is why it's especially important you be honest with them. Your legal team needs to be prepared for all possible allegations against you.
Finding out that you've lied to either investigators or your lawyers reflects poorly on you and may suggest that the accusations against you have merit. It will also make it more difficult for you to disprove false accusations.
A legal team experienced in child abuse and neglect cases knows how to craft defenses against poor behavior and show how they do not reflect a person's overall parenting or relationship with a child. They may be able to suggest actions, such as anger management or therapy, that show a desire to change and prevent a repeat of poor behavior.
Previous Abuse or Addiction Issues
Especially in custody cases, one parent may suggest another is unfit due to previous behavior or mental illness. That you previously abused another person, have a criminal record, or suffered from drug or alcohol addiction does not make you an unfit parent. Mental illness also does not directly tie into your fitness to parent.
Fair or not, arrest records, previous addiction issues, and mental illness can provide a good foundation for claims against you. Others may twist events to show that you haven't overcome previous issues and remain a threat to your children.
Even if your past is not mentioned in the initial report, you should be prepared to show how and why these issues are not part of your current life. If you suffer from mental illness, for example, provide a note or report from your doctor that shows you're receiving necessary treatment.
With all of these issues, your goal is to show that they are not related to your ability to successfully care for your children.
Remember the Children
Throughout the process, even if you don't have custody, do what you can with CP&P investigators, your attorneys, and any other involved parties to ensure your children's continued well-being. While a child may not be directly involved in the investigation, limited access to a parent or awareness that something is wrong may be a source of stress and emotional unease for children.
Some children may require therapy either during or after a CP&P investigation. Others may need more support at school. Even if your time with them is limited, do what you can to make sure they have access to other trusted relatives or adults. Make sure your children still have as much of their usual support system and normal routine as possible.
These actions ensure your children's well being and minimize the negative impact of an investigation into their lives. Keeping your children in mind also shows investigators that you care about your children and do what's necessary to provide for their well being.
Protect Your Rights and Your Children
When battling accusations of child abuse or neglect, keep in mind the big picture and your central goal: Maintaining a relationship with your children and limiting the damage to them. Especially when contending with false allegations and investigators who refuse to believe you, it can be easy to become trapped in anger and a desire for revenge.
Hiring the Lento Law Firm will provide you with an advocate and someone who can help you craft a strategy that focuses on your end goal. If you're dealing with accusations of 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.