If you have been contacted by the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P), formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), you may be wondering what this means and how to proceed. We understand how emotionally charged it can be to find your family at the center of a child welfare investigation. Our knowledgeable and compassionate family law attorneys will take the time to help you understand each step of the DCP&P process.
What Does the Division of Child Protection and Permanency Do?
DCP&P (formerly DYFS) is New Jersey’s state agency responsible for protecting children. The agency investigates all reports of child abuse or neglect by collecting information through home visits and interviews with the child’s household members, as well as people such as teachers, physicians, or school counselors.
If the investigator determines that a caregiver has harmed a child or placed a child at substantial risk of harm, DCP&P (formerly DYFS) may commence a case in Superior Court and may also make its own findings regarding abuse and neglect. DCP&P does not initiate criminal cases, although in some situations, information may be shared with law enforcement agencies and criminal charges filed based on an investigation’s findings.
Division of Child Protection & Permanency Investigations
After a report of child abuse or neglect is filed, DCP&P sends a case worker to the child’s home to initiate the investigation. The case worker gathers information by speaking to you and members of your household. In order to assess their safety, case workers must also see all children who live in the household, including the child on whose behalf the report was filed.
Under law, case workers are not allowed to release the name of the person or persons who filed the report. Parents and legal guardians do have the right, however, to ask the case worker for specific details related to the allegations. Most families cooperate with case workers, but in the event a family refuses the case worker to enter the home or prevents the case worker from seeing a child, DCP&P may seek help from the police or a judge.
After this initial visit, case workers typically contact people in the child’s life who may have additional relevant information (including contacting the child’s teacher). The case worker may also verify family references, including talking to a neighbor, relative, or a clergy member.
Once the case worker is satisfied that the report has been thoroughly investigated, you will receive a letter within 45 days outlining the findings of the investigation. If DCP&P is satisfied that your child is safe, the report will be concluded as “unfounded,” and the investigation will be discontinued. If the report comes back as “substantiated,” it means DCP&P found evidence that your child was harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm by a caregiver. Further action will be taken, including the possibility of formal court hearings to remove the child from the home.
The Court Process
A court process initiated by DCP&P (formerly DYFS) will go through several steps, usually including the following:
- Order to Show Cause and Complaint
- Preliminary Hearing
- Fact-Finding Hearing (or Trial)
- Dispositional Hearing
- Review Hearings
- Permanency Hearing
For more information on what happens during each of these steps, see:
How the Superior Court Process Works in a DCP&P Case in New Jersey
Child Abuse or Neglect
New Jersey law defines child abuse or neglect as any of the following:
- Causing serious physical or emotional harm to a child, or allowing another person to cause such harm;
- Creating a risk of physical harm to a child, or allowing another person to create such risk;
- Sexually abusing a child, or allowing another person to sexually abuse a child;
- Harming a child, or creating a risk of harm to a child, by failing to provide proper care;
- Using excessive physical punishment on a child; or
- Abandoning a child.
A judge who decides that a child is at risk of serious harm while in your care can find that you abused or neglected the child even if the child has not actually been harmed. Because of this broad definition, competent attorney representation is critical in a child abuse or neglect case.
Administrative Substantiation of Abuse or Neglect
While your case is proceeding in court, the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency may conclude, on the basis of its own investigation, that you have abused or neglected your child. This is a formal administrative finding called “substantiation.” DCP&P must notify you of this decision, as substantiation can have very serious consequences. DCP&P will provide the information to police and will place your name in the New Jersey Child Abuse Registry. This can restrict your ability to engage in certain activities, including employment, that involve contact with children, the disabled or the elderly.
If you disagree with the DCP&P decision, you have 20 days to appeal it and request an administrative hearing. If you are already a defendant in a court case based on the allegations of abuse or neglect, you must give your attorney the notice immediately. Having an attorney represent you from the very beginning is the best way to ensure that you will have adequate assistance throughout this difficult process, and preserve your rights by timely filing the necessary papers with the Court.
How to Protect Your Rights
Obtain an attorney as soon as possible.
Even where only one parent has been accused of abuse or neglect, DCP&P (formerly DYFS) will ordinarily name both parents in the court case, and in most cases each parent needs to have a separate attorney. A Deputy Attorney General will represent DCP&P and the court will appoint an attorney for the child, called a Law Guardian.
If you can afford to hire an attorney, do so as soon as possible. If you cannot afford an attorney, you may qualify for representation from the Office of Parental Representation (OPR), a unit of the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender. More information about OPR is available at the court house where your case has been filed. If you do not have an attorney before your preliminary hearing, you can ask the judge to postpone the hearing to give you time to find one.
Cooperate in developing a plan to help your child
In most cases, the law requires the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency to try to keep your family together and to work with you to develop a plan for this, known as a Safety Protection Plan.
There are many services available for struggling families, and DCP&P will probably suggest some. Take advantage of these. If you believe that you need more help, ask for it. Your caseworker and your attorney can help you determine what your family needs. If DCP&P wants to place your child outside the home and you have relatives who can care for your child, let DCP&P know this immediately. In most cases, if DCP&P removes a child from the home, the parents have a right to visit the child. Your attorney can make sure that you get the best visitation plan possible.
If you have questions about any part of the New Jersey Division of Child Protection & Permanency Investigations process, our compassionate and experienced family law attorneys can help you understand your options and decide how best to proceed. Call us today at (855) 993-3858 to schedule an initial confidential consultation.