Having a Special Response Unit Investigator show up at your house to interview you about suspected child abuse is one of the most stressful and terrifying moments any parent can experience. In instances where these investigations may affect custodial arrangements or have drastic effects on pending family law disputes, the stress can magnify. Although you must take the investigation seriously, it's important that you understand your rights while interacting with these investigators. Although the investigators may make you feel as though you must capitulate to all of their requests or risk losing your children, you have unshakeable rights throughout the entire investigation period, and the Special Response Unit Investigator must adhere to proper policies and procedures. If you are currently involved in an investigation involving a Special Response Unit investigator, New Jersey DCP&P attorney Joseph D. Lento and his entire team at the Lento Law Firm can help.
What Is a Special Response Unit Investigator?
Special Response Unit Investigators ("SPRU Investigators'') are special investigators employed by New Jersey's Department of Child Protection and Permanency division. SPRU investigators are typically assigned to investigate child abuse referrals that must be addressed on evenings and weekends when the DCP&P offices are operating outside normal business hours. Typically, SPRU investigators are assigned to conduct immediate welfare checks on children outside of normal operating hours when the office receives a referral indicating that the child might need immediate protection and attention. Although SPRU Investigators may seem unique because they carry a different title, they mostly carry out their investigations in a similar manner as normal investigators.
What Do SPRU Investigators Do?
SPRU Investigators investigate alleged cases of suspected child abuse, abandonment, and neglect. Investigators are employed by the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, which operates to thoroughly investigate all referrals of alleged child abuse within the state of New Jersey. After investigators receive anonymous tips of suspected child abuse on their hotline, they follow a formal procedure to evaluate whether there is cause for future intervention. The timeline for the investigation is very quick and must begin within 24 hours of receiving the referral. Throughout the process, SPRU investigators may speak to witnesses, review records such as law enforcement or medical reports, and even conduct a home visit to evaluate the safety of the child's familial environment. While every home investigation varies, investigators will often inspect the following:
- The overall cleanliness of the home;
- Whether there is enough adequate food for the child and if the child has access to the food;
- Whether there are functioning utilities such as electricity, running water, heat, etc.
- The family's sleeping arrangements; and
- The overall safety of the home with special attention to whether dangerous substances or artifacts are outside of the child's reach and control.
After collecting enough evidence, the SPRU investigator will decide whether or not the child abuse allegations warrant further department intervention by opening up an official DCP&P case.
What Are My Rights?
Your Rights During Interviews
Investigations will typically involve a thorough examination of the child's well-being. Nearly every investigation will include thorough interviews about the allegations. Aside from speaking with children directly, the SPRU investigator may want to speak with other individuals who may know about the alleged child abuse. Although it is incredibly uncomfortable to imagine a stranger speaking to your family members, and friends, the SPRU investigator is allowed to inquire about the nature of the allegations and parental behavior without your consent. Some people the SPRU investigator may want to interview might include:
- Your child's teacher, school counselor, tutors, etc.;
- Your child's babysitter;
- Your family members, in-laws, etc.
- Your neighbors;
- Your child's pediatrician, therapist, dentist, etc. and
- Family friends;
At every stage of the investigation, you have the right to be informed about the nature of the allegations against you and respond to the allegations. In other words, while the SPRU investigators may wish to interview third parties regarding their concerns, you also have the right to be interviewed and share your side of the story. If you have been investigated by an SPRU investigator or are currently in the process of completing an interview with an investigator, Attorney Lento can help you evaluate your unique set of circumstances and respond appropriately.
While SPRU investigators have the right to speak with children without their parent and/or guardian's consent, parents have the right to remain in contact with their children throughout the investigation phase. If you are understandably nervous about allowing your children to speak to a stranger without you in the room, you have the right to ask to stay present during the interview. While the SPRU investigator may not honor this request if they are concerned that your presence may sway your child from otherwise providing truthful statements, they may deny this request.
In circumstances where an SPRU investigator is responding to emergency investigations while the child is not at home (at school, a hospital, etc.), they have the right to speak to the child without first informing the parents. Parents must, however, be notified reasonably soon about the investigation as well as the nature of allegations against them.
You Don't Have to Sign Releases
While working with an SPRU Investigator, they may request that you sign something called a "release." Although some investigators may take the time to adequately explain the functionality of the release, many do not. A release is needed in circumstances where the SPRU investigator needs your signed permission to speak to certain people like your doctor, therapist, your child's pediatrician, etc. If you are handed a release, you must read them thoroughly. At times, the release may be too broad. Releases can be too broad when they do not indicate how long the signed consent lasts as well as what providers the consent applies to. In this case, the release may be too broad, and you have the right to refuse to sign the documents. Working with Joseph D. Lento and the team at the Lento Law Firm during this process can shed light on the department's intent and investigatory processes.
In other instances, the release may be limited to requesting information about a particular event or time frame. Even if you feel comfortable signing this release, you can always work with the SPRU investigator to place additional limitations on their access. For instance, you can request that they access the records during a specific timeframe, etc. In other instances, you can also contact the providers and ask that they provide the SPRU investigator with a letter and/or relevant documentation instead of the investigator seeking a release. For instance, if you do not want to release all of your private psychiatric records to the SPRU investigator, you can ask if they would accept a letter from your psychiatrist speaking about your parenting style, ability to parent your child, manage stress, maintain sobriety, etc.
In any event, while being investigated by an SPRU investigator can feel overwhelming and scary, it's important to remember that you maintain control over your family's private information. If the SPRU investigator is acting in an intimidating or threatening manner that makes you feel like you have no choice but to sign a release, they have gone too far. Working with Attorney Lento will quickly remind the SPRU investigator that they have policies and procedures they are mandated to follow under federal and state laws.
You Can Refuse to Drug Test
Although SPRU investigators can make you feel like you must comply with all of their demands, this is not the case. All parents and guardians have the right to refuse the SPRU investigator entry into their home. Just as parents can refuse to sign releases, they also have the right to refuse the investigator's requests for evaluations such as drug tests, mental health examinations, etc. In some instances, however, refusing testing can have dire consequences, as investigators may assume you are refusing a drug test because you are under the influence. If this is the case, they will likely have more evidence to support a claim that your home is unsafe. Not only can this have dire consequences in the DCP&P matter, but your suspected child abuse can also affect ongoing custodial decisions. Therefore, because of the complex nature of DCP&P investigations, what's at stake, and the nuanced approach parents must take in balancing their rights while also appearing cooperative, legal assistance throughout the entire process can help avoid unnecessary setbacks.
You Must Be Treated Fairly and Respectfully
Every single parent and guardian has the right to be treated fairly and respectfully throughout the entire investigative period. Although SPRU investigators often respond at all hours of the night and may act with a hurried approach, they should refrain from inducing fear, intimidation, or embarrassment. Investigators must balance an appropriate consideration of a family's race, ethnicity, culture, orientation, religion, etc., without any subjective judgment. For instance, while a family's culture may explain some unique behaviors that the SPRU investigation should consider, the investigator may not use the family's culture to act in a judgmental and biased manner.
Can an SPRU Investigator Remove My Child from My Home?
SPRU investigations must not be taken lightly. If the department feels as though the child abuse referrals warrant immediate attention, the allegations are likely serious. In situations where the investigators feel that the child is at risk of immediate and imminent harm, the child can be removed from the home through an Emergency Dodd Removal. Dodd Removals are common in circumstances where the allegations are severe enough that waiting for a preliminary hearing would be too risky and/or dangerous for the child. This may often be the case where there are obvious, visible signs of abuse, such as injuries, malnourishment, etc.
If a child is removed through an emergency Dodd removal, the court must hold a hearing to review the need for current removal within the next 48 hours. At this hearing, the court will review the report drafted by the SPRU investigator and conclude whether the department was justified in removing the child. The court will also assess the need for ongoing removal, taking into consideration whether safety measures can be put in place to ensure that the child can remain in the home. For instance, the court may order that an abusive significant other move out of the home, or that locks are changed, etc. If the parent does not agree to these terms, the court can determine that there is an ongoing need for removal. Many times, unique safety plans can be put in place that serves both a rehabilitative purpose for the parent and ensures the child's ongoing safety in the home. Qualified legal assistance from Joseph D. Lento throughout this process can make all the difference.
Work With an Experienced DCP&P Attorney Today
DCP&P investigations involving SPRU Investigators are very complex and must be taken seriously. If you have been investigated by an SPRU investigator or are currently facing an investigation, experienced New Jersey Family Law and DCP&P Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Family Law Team can help. Attorney Lento and his team are experienced and will review your unique circumstances from every angle, allowing you to share your side of the story. Don't sit on these allegations. Contact us today by calling (888) 535-3686 or by using our online contact form.