A number of parents have contacted me to seek guidance on how to handle child welfare investigations. A common query is whether or not it is permissible to record an interview with the investigator from the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP), formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). The short answer is yes, child welfare investigations may be tape-recorded. However, the better question is whether or not the investigator will allow such recording.
So long as the tape recording is of a conversation to which the parent is a party, the recording is authorized and is not a violation of either of the New Jersey Wiretap Act or considered a tortious invasion of privacy. Unfortunately, the vast majority of division investigators will outright refuse a request to tape-record their conversations with the parent. This, of course, begs the question: If you are going to perform your job as required by law, why would you oppose the recording of your interview with the accused parent? Is it because you cannot manipulate the responses provided by the parent if those responses are captured on tape recording? Perhaps it is because you fear a lack of perfection in performing your job duties, which may be brought to the attention of your supervisor.
In fairness to the workers, most people would feel some degree of anxiety if the routine performance of their job duties was captured on a recording device. Nevertheless, not only should workers consent to tape-recording of interviews, but they should encourage them. The information gathered by a Division investigator is not dispositive of the outcome of the child welfare investigation… but, it greatly influences the outcome.
The information collected is to be provided to the agency supervisor, and ultimately, a determination will be made as to whether a child is at risk of harm, has been harmed and/or is the subject of abuse or neglect by the parent. However, because caselaw imbues the Division with a “high degree of reliability” in its collection of information that is documented in agency records, information later admitted into evidence in court proceedings summarily and with little personal knowledge by the testifying worker, it is imperative that the information collected be accurate.
The high caseloads of division investigators, the speed with which referrals must be investigated, the timing of presentment to the parent for their interview, the stress of the situation and the reality that fact gathering during stressful confrontations between potential child abusers and Division workers may distort perception, justifies – if not compels – the necessity of tape-recording to accurately capture what has been reported. Many Division workers are well-intentioned professionals who aim to protect children from abuse and neglect. However, because that is their stated objective, many workers come to believe that every referral investigated should be approached from the law-enforcement perspective of aiming to “shakedown” the crime they feel is ongoing. Consequently, very few parents have reviewed investigation summaries with counsel and found their statements accurately documented in agency records. The well intentioned social worker “documented” what she believed had occurred, rather than what the parent stated had occurred. This interviewer bias has been the subject of numerous psychological studies.
With all that is at stake, the legislature should require these investigation interviews to be recorded. If the goal is to truly protect children who have been abused or neglected, or are at risk of same, our system should want harmless families to be left alone so that division resources can be devoted to those truly in need of assistance.
If you or someone you know would like assistance with a Division investigation, that may or may not involve a tape-recorded interview, contact Paragano & Williams, LLC for a consultation.