Not every family law case involving DCPP begins with DCPP filing a complaint against a parent. Many times, parents are involved in a dispute, an allegation of child abuse or neglect occurs and the agency becomes involved in investigating, although they have not yet decided to file a complaint. In these instances, it is not uncommon that the Family Court judge hearing the matter will simply order the parties to “cooperate with DCPP”. And by “cooperate”, the court usually means attend evaluations, cooperate in counseling or other “services” and other significant forms of relief that the division would otherwise have to seek by way of a formal complaint and adducing the appropriate proofs at trial.
Most family law practitioners, not wanting to upset the apple cart, simply agree to “cooperate with DCPP”, feeling that this will expedite their client’s return to a normal custody and parenting time arrangement. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Many times, the agency becomes involved to investigate, and being given carte blanche by the family court judge, choose to impose upon parents lengthy, overwhelming services that may or may not be necessary. But, since the agency is relieved of its responsibility to file a complaint and prove its case that the services are necessary, by virtue of the family court judge simply directing the parties to “cooperate with DCPP”, the agency can do whatever it wants.
So what has to be done when DCPP is investigating an allegation during the course of family court litigation? The first thing that the practitioner should be mindful of is noting to the court that were DCPP to file a complaint, it would have to prove its case by a preponderance of the evidence before services could be ordered by the court. Parents do not lose those statutory protections because DCPP is investigating without need of filing a complaint because a parent has already chosen to do so.
Second, practitioners should be mindful that the division determination that a certain service is necessary does not compel the result that that service must be provided by the state, in lieu of privately obtained services by the parents. So, for instance, if a parent is directed to participate in counseling, nothing prohibits the parent from seeking counseling through his or her private insurance. In fact, doing so often accelerates the creation of a true therapeutic doctor-patient relationship, as the parent is not weary that any and everything stated to this person will be reported back to the agency.
Finally, it is important that attorneys do not allow themselves to be bullied with a misplaced perception by the judge that a parent’s refusing to “cooperate with DCPP” has something to hide or is culpable of child abuse. Attorneys should offer themselves up as a shield for their clients. Let the court know that your client is more than willing to cooperate with the agency, but you are not willing to subject your client to division involvement absent asserting these protections for him or her, out of concern for your ability to advocate and protect their interests down the road.
Do not forget that Superior Court judges were once attorneys themselves. Even if they did not handle child abuse cases in their practice, they understand the concept of a lawyer’s need to protect his or her client. Assert that need to protect to shield your client from any adverse inferences from the failure to “cooperate”.
At the end of the day, your client may still desire to “cooperate” with DCPP. It maybe faster and accelerate reunification and:or resumption of normal parenting. As long as he or she understands the risks associated with this, that decision belongs to the client alone. But it needs to be an informed decision, and that is where parent attorneys are most vital to this process.
If you or someone you know is involved in a family court matter involving DCPP, please contact Paragano & Williams, LLC to schedule a consultation.