Who Causes the Harm?


In protracted DCPP litigation, there are often many twists and turns in the cases. Sometimes, the “non-offending parent” becomes the target of an investigation by the agency. This is common in cases where one parent is substantiated for abuse and the other parent is subsequently substantiated for “failure to protect” the children from the alleged abusive parent.

If children are in the custody of the alleged non-protective parent, any distress by the children is typically attributed to that parent. But is that truly the case?

Is it not harm in and of itself to have the child welfare agency and its many, many individuals (caseworkers, investigators, supervisors and liaisons), the law guardian’s office (with its many investigators and attorneys), parents attorneys and a judge or two, involved in the life of a child? If the child is struggling with the loss of one parent who is barred from access due to court orders in DCPP Court, does that parental absence not cause immediate harm and trauma to the child? Especially when the child knows the parent has not died but is simply not authorized by the court to see them?

And can we place upon the “non-offending” parent the burden of the children’s emotional stability, when it is the very existence of the “helpers” of the child welfare system that is increasing if not causing the distress in the child?

In my experience, these thorny issues are too amorphous for this to be determined with any degree of psychological certainty. Expert reports are obtained and testimony is provided, which amounts to little more than the “gut reaction” of the expert. Absent a smoking gun such as a child confessing that the “non-offending” parent is berating the child about his/her offending parent, the child’s emotional response are often the product of all that plagues him/her.

Sadly, those involved in the child welfare system often fall into one of two camps – i.e., the child-saver camp and the parent-defender can. Those in the former category would be inclined to believe that child distress is a product of nonsupport by the “non-offending” parent. Those in the latter category are more inclined to believe that the child’s distress is a product of the enormous, oppressive invasion of the child’s life by the child welfare system.

Whichever view is adopted, the opinions on this topic are too significant to be decided by “gut reactions”. That is exactly what happens day in and day out. Consequently, many practitioners advise parents whose spouse has been substantiated to either sever ties with that parent or at least down play the relationship to appease the players in this system who take a predatory stance when faced with a parent they feel is supportive of a parent found by a judge to be abusive.

This post presents no position on the issue, but simply provides food for thought for future consideration.

If you or someone you know is involved in the child welfare system as either a targeted parent or a non-offending parent, contact the Williams Law Group, LLC to schedule a consultation.

When DCPP comes to Family Court


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.

Child Abuse in New Jersey may soon be redefined


On March 11, 2013, the New Jersey Law Revision Commission issued its draft report and recommendations for changes to the two statutes in New Jersey that govern the law of child abuse and neglect – namely, Title 9 and Title 30. The public comment period is nearing conclusion.

For anyone who is interested in this area of law, it is vital that you review the Commission’s draft report. Many proposed changes will severely impact parental rights and metonymy in child welfare matters. Many of the current protections for parents will be eliminated, particularly a parent’s right to decline services pending resolution of a fact-finding hearing.

In addition, under the new law, only DCPP can file an action using the strictures of Title 9 to allege child abuse and neglect and seek protective orders. Presumably, that right will still be available in Family Court by other means; however, it is concerning that where DCPP investigates and sees no abuse or neglect, parents will lose the right to file a separate Title 9 action. Effectively, DCPP’s view of a family’s circumstances will be elevated beyond question, unless DCPP decides to file a court action.

Allison C. Williams, Esq., Chair of the DCPP subcommittee of the Family Law Executive Committee (FLEC) of the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA), is working with James Colaprico, Esq., Chair of the Child Welfare Section of NJSBA to provide a comprehensive position opposing the most draconian provisions of the revised law, which aims to coalesce Title 9 and Title 30 into one comprehensive statute within Title 9.

For anyone who is interested, you may view the proposed revised law at:

http://www.lawrev.state.nj.us/children/t9childabuseandneglectDTR031113.pdf.

If you or someone you know is involved with DYFS/DCPP, and requires legal advice, please contact Paragano & Williams, LLC to schedule a consultation.

What a difference a year makes!


In litigation brought by the division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP)(formerly the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS)), one year is a very significant benchmark in the case. After one year in litigation, the court is required to conduct a permanency hearing and to approve a plan to achieve permanency for the child. That plan may include reunification with the parent, termination of parental rights followed by adoption, kinship legal guardianship with a relative, or one of three other alternatives. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.50.

Though there is no statutory requirement for litigation to last one year, anecdotal experience from child welfare attorneys supports that this is typical. Various, however, a requirement for a permanency hearing within one year pursuant to the a
Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).

Further, parent educational materials distributed in child welfare courts, provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), that the case should be resolved with reunification, if possible, within one year.

But should we accept the de facto presumption that the litigation must last a year? Does having a one-year “benchmark” allow the agency to justify its delay in implementing necessary services to achieve reunification? Does having a one-year benchmark encourage the agency to talk on additional requested services for family over the course of that year, knowing that the practice typically includes a one-year period of litigation? And because it is exceedingly rare that a court will not grant the agency its request for additional services, what is lost, really, by requesting more and more and more of a parent because the agency has one year to play with?

It is a dirty little secret of child welfare agencies that services are often provided to families solely for the purpose of meeting the statutory requirement down the line to terminate parental rights. Now that ASFA requires concurrent planning, the agency cannot take this “over servicing” approach with only those families anticipated to have termination in their future; it adopts this approach for all families.

The consequence of this “standard operating procedure” is that many families are simply tortured by a one-year entitlement by the agency to control its life, rather than a strategic, directed approach to help families and end litigation. It is true that many families achieve reunification before the end of litigation, as a parent may seek return of the child at any time, which shall be granted unless there is evidence of harm to the child’s health, safety or welfare. See, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.32(a). Yet, it is all too common that the division successfully opposes reunification upon the stated concern that a lapse of perfection upon reunification will only result in a subsequent removal.

This concern is not totally unwarranted. However, the one year benchmark is far too often used as a guillotine over families, rather than a tempered response to the circumstances presented to the court. Wow the benchmark appears to be here to stay, we should not accept that one year is a magic number that should guide most cases. Each case requires and deserves a case-by-case individual approach.

If you or someone you know is involved in child welfare litigation that appears to be dragging on needlessly, contact Paragano & Williams, LLC for assistance resolving your matter expeditiously.

Recording of DYFS Investigation Interviews


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.

Frivolous Litigation brought by DCPP


When a party to litigation files an action or asserts an affirmative defense to an action which he knows has no basis in law or in fact, the adverse party may serve notice pursuant to the Frivolous Litigation statute seeking withdrawal of the frivolous pleading within 30 days or an award of sanctions will be sought. See, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1. The requirements to seek sanctions for frivolous litigation can be found in Court Rule 1:4-8.

So, one must wonder: Can Frivolous Litigation sanctions be sought against the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) when it asserts a knowingly unsupportable position to achieve temporary custody, or worse, to ratify a Dodd removal (i.e., a removal performed with no court order)?

The short answer is Yes, but courts are not likely to enter sanctions against the Division for many reasons:

1. If DCPP pays out money to recompense parents for its wrongdoing, those funds will not bd available to help other families genuinely in need of services.

2. The time, effort and cost involved in unearthing a “knowing falsehood”, rather than an inadvertent one, disincentivizes courts to allow exploration of the issue in pending court actions, and filing a new court action creates all sorts of problems with confidentiality.

3. Most judges are not willing to say that s/he erred by believing the Division, which is almost universally done in removal hearings. Doing so would undermine the court’s ability to give deference at the start of a case (which will make decision-making that much harder and more time-consuming).

So, should you seek sanctions against the Division, with this great likelihood of being unsuccessful? Absolutely!

Unless and until the court is presented with a compelling pattern of egregious overstepping by the agency, as demonstrated through aggressive applications by wronged parents, errors on the part of the agency will continue to appear as misguided efforts to protect children, rather than part and parcel of a pattern of abuse by the agency guided by its culture of ill-conceived arrogance about parenting and families.

Rome was not built in a day. Similarly, upending the culture of overreaching by the Division will not occur in a day. We must be ever mindful of the need to battle this culture, and the frivolous litigation statute is one way of doing that.

If you or someone you know has been the subject of a wrongful custody action or removal of a child by the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (i.e., DCPP/DYFS), please contact us to Schedule a Consultation to discuss how we can help.

DCPP Segway into Custody Litigation


In New Jersey, as in most jurisdictions, the court must consider whether or not a child would be subjected to abuse or neglect in the care of any parent seeking legal and physical custody of the child. Consequently, the outcome of an abuse or neglect case brought by DCPP can be very significant for custody litigation. When a parent has been found by the agency or a court to have abused or neglected child, however, that finding is not dispositive of the custody issue.

Here are a few points to consider when contesting custody, after a finding of abuse or neglect has been made:

1. An agency finding without court intervention can, and often does, indicate an isolated incident that is of no further concern to the agency. Pursue an administrative appeal, if for no other reason than to alert the custody court that you contest the agency finding.

2. The court finding often occurs long after the problem has been remediated. Many times an allegation of abuse and neglect does not reach a fact-finding stage for many months, even a year, into the case. By that time, services have been offered to the family and the problem has resolved.

3. If abuse or neglect allegations arise during the pendency of a custody case, parents’ financial resources often limit them to litigate in only one forum. The parent may stipulate in order to get rid of the agency case and invest resources in the custody case.

Further, the agency is often more willing to be lax in its involvement with the family if the parent stipulates to expedite the process. However distasteful that may be, the reality should be addressed with the custody court so as not to prejudice a litigant seeking custody.

4. The broad, amorphus definition of neglect often makes less-than-perfect parental behavior a violation of law. Many times, parents can persuade the agency to change its finding if the facts of a contentious divorce are fleshed out in a custody case while the abuse and neglect case is ongoing.

5. Sometimes, both parents have engaged in some form of abuse and neglect; however, only one parent is accused and has a finding made against him. That does not prevent the other parent from filing his own Title 9 complaint or raising allegations of abuse or neglect in the custody case. The fact that the agency did not accuse the adverse party of abuse or neglect does not negate its existence.

In sum, do not assume that a finding by DCPP ends the custody case. Many times, it is merely an unfortunate blip on the radar screen that must be explained through custody and parenting time evaluations, custody mediation and trial.

For more information, please feel free to contact us and schedule a consultation.

Non-Offending Parents in Sex Abuse Cases


NewJerseyDYFSdefense.com received an inquiry regarding the Division’s hostility toward non-offending parents in sexual abuse cases. Allison C. Williams, Esq. responded to this inquiry, and since then, we have received very favorable responses to that Reply in Comments. For that reason, we have decided to republish that post here.

Counsel is involved in a matter involving alleged sexual abuse by the Father wherein the Mother believes in his innocence in a northern county. She represents the non-offending parent who firmly believes her husband’s innocence. The following suggestions are made for such circumstances:

1. The non-offending parent should compile a list of reasons why s/he believes his/her spouse. The reasons should focus upon the parent-child relationship with the non-offending spouse — not the spousal relationship. Focusing on the latter will likely draw complaint that the non-offending parent prioritizes the spouse over the child.

2. The psychological community acknowledges that a parent can disbelieve that abuse has occurred, and yet, still be supportive of the child who believes she has been abused. Cite to this research every time the matter is listed in court. Such information from Learned Treatises offers material and relevant evidence to the court for dispositional purposes.

3. Minimize the public appearance of support got the alleged offending parent by the non-offending parent. The image of wife supporting husband contradicts the position that wife supports his accuser (i.e.., the child) – no matter what the psychological community has to say about the two roles being compatible.

4. Obtain private therapy for the non-offending parent. Do NOT allow the Division access to this professional unless and until there is a finding, and only then, after the consequences of such finding have been addressed in court. Keep that safe space for the non-offending parent to express fear, concern, anxiety and yes, even doubt, without fear of jeopardizing the accused parent’s defense, the child’s sense of security or the marital relationship.

These tips are not intended to constitute legal advice. If you would like to discuss your matter further, please contact me at our office and schedule a consultation with Allison C. Williams, Esq.

DYFS Cases name both Parents as Defendants


Parents often ask me why the non-offending parent is listed as a defendant when the State of New Jersey, vis-à-vis the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP), formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), files a lawsuit in court. The answer is simple. Because the state is seeking relief against the parents, whether that parent has done anything wrong or not.

Usually, in these cases the division is looking for the court to order the parents to call operate with services for the child who has been allegedly abused or neglected. Both parents have a right to be heard and to oppose any such relief as to their child.

Of course, this raises an important irony. When the court has jurisdiction over the child, which occurs as soon as the division files an action, services are routinely ordered for the child. This may include evaluations, therapy, mentors, school assistance, Financial assistance, etc. If a parent were inclined to oppose such “services”, what would be the end result? With rare exception, the parent’s opposition would be noted, but not honored, and services would be ordered in any event.

We do have the recent case of the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services vs. T.S., Which cautions the trial court against ordering services simply because they are “routinely ordered”; However, those services are related to the parent – not the child.

In reality, the state wants the parent to participate in the litigation – whether they are the cause of it or not – as they will be required to implement any services for the child, Including, for instance, transporting the child to therapy, assisting the child with any tutoring or mentoring that is provided for the child, giving background information to any professionals performing evaluations, etc. And, if nothing else, the non-offending parent will want to know what is being alleged as to his/her child.

Non-offending parents should use their participation in the litigation for its intended purpose of facilitating a resolution of issues impacting the child. For any litigation that follows the child welfare case, the parent will then be armed with information about the welfare of the child that may bare upon issues of custody, parenting time, and related issues.