Effective in April 2013, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (formerly the Division of Youth and Family Services) will have a new administrative options for determinations of child abuse investigation. As the law stands now, when the division investigates an allegation of child abuse or neglect, there are only two options for the “outcome” of the investigation. Either the allegation is substantiated or unfounded.
“Substantiated” means that it is more likely than not that the alleged offense did occur and/or that the alleged perpetrator is responsible. “Unfounded” means that either the alleged offense is not more likely than not to have occurred or that the alleged perpetrator is not the one responsible for the abuse or neglect. Once the referral is received, the investigation outcome can be based on the initial allegation or upon any information arising from the investigation.
There once was a time when there existed a third category of outcomes between “unfounded” and “substantiated”. That category was “unsubstantiated”. “Unsubstantiated” means something more than unfounded – i.e., that the referral was not “baseless”, but that the information could not be verified one way or another and hence, the division would not characterize the allegation as abuse or neglect.
Now, the new administrative protocol will have four levels of evaluation. They will have varying degrees of consequences, but the most significant is that only an allegation that is “substantiated” will result in a listing of the parent on the Child Abuse Registry maintained by the Department of Children and Families (DCF). On the flipside, only allegations that are “unfounded” will result in an expungement of the child abuse records, which will occur within three years of the “unfounded” outcome. For the two into room findings on child abuse investigation, the division will retain child-abuse records and may have some increased authority to provide services to the family absent consent; however, the parent will not be listed on the registry.
While it may appear to those who handle these cases that the new system provides opportunities for “settlement”, practitioners should still be wary of “settling” these cases. The reason is that the prior administrative finding, if not contested and/or if not resolved as a fact finding hearing with the finding other than “unfounded”, future child abuse investigations may present a greater difficulty for your client to defend them if the matter had been simply “unfounded”. As with any burgeoning area of the law, new administrative and/or legislative imperatives do still require a full analysis of potential consequences, with disclosure to the parent of the uncertainty of consequences, before a body of law will be established to address the new regulations. Parents should be voire dired about their understanding of the “settlement”, if any is proposed.
Further, defense counsel should be careful in negotiating and place into consent orders the representations upon which the parent is relying in “settling” their case. This ensures that future child abuse investigations will not have the presumptive effect that our law currently provides to substantiated child abuse in a parent’s history.
For more information about child abuse agency regulation changes, please contact us to schedule a consultation.