Defending Against DCPP

A child custody dispute is difficult enough.  When a parent is faced with the possibility of losing custody of a child, it is common to feel scared, confused, and lost.  An experienced family law attorney can greatly help parents in these difficult times in their lives to guide them through such an emotionally draining process.

Many parents face a significant and added stressor in their custody disputes: the Department of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP, formerly the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS)).  DCPP involvement in one’s case is a very serious matter.  When DCPP initiates litigation or otherwise becomes involved in child custody cases, it means that there was the possibility that a child was abused or neglected, which could lead to one or both parents losing custody of their children on both temporary and permanent bases. 

What Constitutes “Abuse” or “Neglect?”

The New Jersey Department of Children and Families, which oversees DCPP, defines “abuse” and “neglect” in the following ways:

Abuse – “The physical, sexual or emotional harm or risk of harm to a child under the age of 18 caused by a parent or other person who acts as a caregiver for the child.”

Neglect – “When a parent or caregiver fails to provide proper supervision for a child or adequate food, clothing, shelter, education or medical care although financially able or assisted to do so.”

DCPP Involvement

DCPP can be involved in your case in various ways.  A DCPP investigation usually begins with a phone call to their hotline with an allegation of abuse or neglect.  Anyone who suspects abuse or neglect can call the hotline and report the allegations anonymously.  The caller also does not need to provide actual proof of abuse or neglect when making the initial call.

Once an individual calls the hotline, DCPP will begin investigating the claim within 24 hours.  At this stage, DCPP will conduct interviews with the parents, children, and other relevant parties.  The Division can also make recommendations to the court throughout the investigation and will provide the judge with periodic updates.

It is important to note that the existence of a DCPP investigation can occur without DCPP actually initiating an action in court.  DCPP will often not request removal of a child from his/her parent(s) or limit a parent’s access to a child while it investigates the claim.  Only in serious situations will DCPP initiate its own action, which is discussed more below.

Filing Of A DCPP Complaint

DCPP may initiate its own litigation by filing a Complaint and Order to Show Cause.  DCPP can file a Complaint alleging that abuse or neglect, as defined above, occurred.  In very serious instances, DCPP can also file a Complaint to terminate one’s parental rights, which usually would occur when a parent has been involved with DCPP for a significant period of time and has failed to adequately comply with their guidelines.

If it deems necessary, DCPP can temporarily remove a child from the accused parent/caretaker’s care.  Public policy in New Jersey favors the avoidance of removal, and DCPP is required to take reasonable measures to prevent removal and to reunify children that have been removed.  However, DCPP may remove a child, even without a court order, if it believes the child faces “an imminent danger to his/her life, safety or health.”  If DCPP does elect removal this way, it must file a Complaint with the Court within two days.

DCPP can also obtain a court order for temporary removal prior to a preliminary hearing on the matter.  To do this, the Division must prove: 1) the accused parent/caretaker was informed of the Division’s intent to apply for an order; 2) the child appears to suffer from the abuse or neglect so much that the immediate removal is necessary to avoid imminent danger to the child’s life, safety or health; and 3) there is not enough time to hold a preliminary hearing.

There are several procedural steps in the DCPP litigation process, and the accused parent(s) has the right to be represented at all of them.  After the Order to Show Cause and Complaint are filed, the Court will decide whether to proceed to Fact-Finding hearings.  These are essentially trials, in which DCPP will provide evidence and try to prove whether the accused parent(s) actually committed abuse or neglect.  The accused’s attorney(s) will defend the parents by cross-examining caseworkers and other officials.  An important role of a DCPP defense attorney at this stage is not only to defend the accused against the allegations, but also keep DCPP itself in check, by pointing out where the Division may have overstepped its power or failed to follow administrative guidelines. 

After the Fact-Finding, a Dispositional Hearing occurs whereby the judge decides whether the Division proved its case.  At this hearing, the judge will also decide where the child(ren) will live as the case proceeds, if the judge feels further steps are necessary.  The accused parent(s) will also be asked to comply with any necessary DCPP services and treatment plans. 

After the Dispositional Hearing, the court will hold multiple Compliance Reviews whereby the court will review DCPP’s reports and evaluate how the case is progressing, focusing whether the accused parent(s) is following DCPP’s recommendations and treatment plans.  The final stage is Permanency Hearings, which must occur no later than twelve months after DCPP has removed a child from a parent’s custody.  At these hearings, the court will decide the best long-term plans for the children and whether it is appropriate for the child(ren) to be returned to the parent(s)’ care. 

A parent faced with temporary or permanent loss of parental rights has a right to legal representation, and the Division must inform parents of their right to obtain counsel, including their options, if applicable, of obtaining a public defender.  No matter the nature of its involvement, DCPP presence in a case is a very serious matter.  Just as a parent would have obligations in a DCPP case, DCPP too is required to follow specific procedural steps when conducting its investigation.  If DCPP has initiated proceedings against you, it is crucial that you consult with an experienced DCPP defense attorney.  Your attorney can help not only guide you through what you need to do to avoid losing custody of your children, but also make sure that DCPP is appropriately doing its job and not depriving you of your due process rights.

At Lesnevich, Marzano-Lesnevich, O’Cathain & O’Cathain, LLC, our team of New Jersey lawyers are experienced, dedicated, and committed to help parents protect their rights when faced with allegations from the Division of Child Protection and Permanency. Contact us today at 201-488-1161 for a legal consultation with our New Jersey DCPP Defense Attorneys.

https://www.nj.gov/dcf/reporting/defining/

N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.29

N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.28

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At Lesnevich, Marzano-Lesnevich, O’Cathain & O’Cathain, LLC, our team of New Jersey child support lawyers are experienced, dedicated, and committed to help those going through very difficult times. Contact us today at 201-488-1161 for a legal consultation with our New Jersey Child Support Attorneys.