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CHILD WELFARE GUIDANCE

If a child you know is experiencing, has experienced, or is at substantial risk of abuse or neglect, these insights may prove helpful

I've reported the abuse and nothing is happening, what can I do next?

The State's response may not be immediate, so if the child is at imminent risk of harm, please do what you can to stay with, protect, and comfort the child until you are confident that the child is safe, calling 911 or the local police department as needed.

The Department of Children and Families ("DCF") is responsible for investigating reports of child abuse and neglect through their Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P or "the Division"). If no action appears to have been taken by the Division over the course of the coming week (or sooner in particularly urgent or dangerous situations) you may want to try calling them again and encouraging others who know about the situation to do the same. Unfortunately, sometimes several people need to call in referrals expressing concern before their reports are taken seriously. Please do your best to provide the Division screener with clear and accurate information. It may also be helpful for you to provide them with the names of and information for others who may know about and be able to speak to the concerns. Remember that the Division's ability to act may depend on the quality of the information you are able to provide. If you have pictures, videos, documents or other proof of an injury or situation that has put or is putting the children at substantial risk of harm, be sure to share this information with the hotline and ask for an intake worker to contact you to learn more.

 

You should technically be able to make a referral anonymously. In our experience, these referrals may not be taken as seriously. Even if anonymity is requested, you should know that there is a risk of your identity being discovered at some point in the process. Division files may be reviewed by a wide variety of different people over the course of many years. 

 

If no one at the Division appears to be taking action, you can contact the DCP&P local office covering the child's home town (https://www.nj.gov/dcf/contact/dcpplocal/) and request to speak with an intake worker or supervisor. If needed, you can escalate your concerns to a Local Office Manager, a Regional Manager, or officials within the Department of Children and Families (https://www.nj.gov/dcf/). The Office of Advocacy (https://www.nj.gov/dcf/about/divisions/oa/ ) is, as you can see from their website, part of DCF. First hand reports about the effectiveness of this office are mixed at best (and we have received concerning reports from experienced foster parents about having received highly inappropriate threats from DCP&P caseworkers after contacting this office) but their involvement may make a difference if the Division is failing to conduct a much-needed investigation and a child is at risk. 

Regardless of who you are reaching out to, you may find it particularly helpful to send written correspondence and printed or digital copies of photographs and documents that provide support for your concerns. Documenting the issues and retaining proof of having sent them to the division will create a paper trail, which may motivate the Division to more thoroughly investigate your concerns

 

If the Division fails to take appropriate action to protect the child, you may wish to initiate litigation. You are not required to hire an attorney to represent you in court, although legal support may be invaluable in successfully navigating the system (and exhausting alternatives short of litigation). Note that taking the Division to court can be expensive and time consuming and that there is a good chance that you may not be reimbursed for these expenses.

The need for easily accessible help in specific cases when the system is failing a child is why we have made it our top legislative priority to push for the creation of an Office of Ombudsman for Children. An ombudsman (the Swedish word for "citizens representative") would provide independent oversight of the Division and would give families an "outside" person to reach out to who can help ensure that policies are being followed and the interests of children are being considered in their specific case. Ombudsman's Offices are currently provided for the elderly, the intellectually disabled, and other vulnerable groups and have had a significant (positive) impact on the quality of services provided to these individuals. However, children in New Jersey's system of care currently have no such advocates.

Identifying and Addressing Policy Violations

Knowledge is power, and knowing when the Division is violating their own policies may prove helpful. Sometimes policy may not be followed because the caseworker assigned to your case is overwhelmed by responsibilities and either hasn't been trained yet or simply forgot to do what needed to be done. In other situations, there may be an informal policy in place that differs significantly from the official one.

Copies of the Division's formal policies can be found online. Recent changes to their website have made it more difficult to review their policies in full but potentially easier to find information relevant to a specific concern. If you visit the policy page, note that a search feature is available on the lower left hand menu of the page (but you may have to scroll down a bit to find it). 

However, if a Division worker is citing "policy" to the detriment of a child, you may and arguably should ask that they provide you with a copy of the policy in question.  It is possible that it may not be an official policy, or one that should be reconsidered. The Division retains the right to change their policies at any time, but their policies must align with applicable state and federal laws. 

If policies are being blatantly disregarded a report can be made to the New Jersey State Comptroller. This will likely not address the situation in your specific case, as the Comptroller's role to is to address system issues, and it may take a substantial amount of time to create a comprehensive report based on the verifiable experiences of numerous families (especially if the reports are made anonymously). However, if enough people raise similar, verifiable concerns, a public report may be issued (for example, when the Division decided to simply stop investigating certain types of sexual abuse without notifying anyone... https://www.nj.gov/comptroller/reports/2021/20230208.shtml ). 

If a child is removed, state and federal law requires their parents to work towards reunification within specific, relatively short, time frames. If a child can be safely reunified with a parent who has been consistent about visiting with the child, has a reasonably strong bond with the child, and is able to appropriately provide for the child's needs, we are strong advocates for reunification! Similarly, if a child can be placed with a relative or friend who is well known to the child and can provide for the child's needs while allowing them to maintain a safe and healthy relationship with their parent, we are also very supportive of this, provided that it happens fairly quickly after the child has been placed in care.

HOWEVER, a parent's failure to promptly and thoroughly address the issues that led to removal may render reunification contrary to the best interests of the child. A year may feel like a decade to a child, and years in foster care like an eternity. During their stay in placement, strong attachments with their caregivers are likely to develop. The younger they are when removed and the longer they stay in placements, the more likely it is that their own identity will be attached to the traditions, routines, social networks, and extended family members of the foster family. Unless the bond with their biological parent(s) is and remains strong, uprooting a children from their entire world, but especially their primary caretaker(s) can be devastating for them. Previously, judges making decisions about whether or not to terminate parental rights were required to consider the impact that removing the child from their foster parents would have upon the child. However, the Division recently pushed for and successfully passed legislation to change consideration of this issue from an essential element (or prong) into an optional factor. This has resulted in significant frustration for child advocates and heartbreaking outcomes for children.

Until the rights of the biological parents are severed in a  "Title 30" guardianship action and an adoption by the foster parents has been finalized there is always a risk that the child may be removed from their foster home. The Division treats foster parents essentially like employees (or more precisely, contractors) of the Division itself, with no rights to any contact with the child until they adopt the child, irrespective of how long or how exclusively they have cared for the child and the level of bond that has developed. The child has no independent right to contact with their foster parents, friends, or anything else that has become part of their world.

As incomprehensible as it may seem, children who have been living with their foster parents exclusively since birth are being removed from these families at the ages of 4, 5, and 6 with no rights to see or communicate with their foster families ever again. (This can happen not only when a child is reunified with a parent after years of unacceptable delays in permanency but even when they are placed with a relative who is a total stranger to the child.) While treating foster parents as disposable makes it easier for the Division to run their agency and prioritize parental rights, it can have a devastating emotional and developmental impact on the child. Policies and laws that put the best interests of the children far below the rights of their parents and the interests of the state prompted us to form CAN and push for rational change.

 

Part of the responsibility for removal of school aged children from the people who have cared for them since birth rests on the shoulders of Governor Murphy and our state senators for failing to adequately staff our judiciary. Children are languishing in the system for years longer than necessary (in violation of state and federal laws) while awaiting trials to terminate parental rights, all the while living with the uncertainty of being uprooted from their caregivers, homes, and community. For each month they wait, the extent of the damage that will be caused if their connections to their foster families is severed grows greater. There is a critical need for more judges to help address this backlog, and we have started a petition to help promote awareness of this issue. 

 

When the Division Takes Parents to Court

When the Division investigates concerns and believes that there must be restrictions on a child's contact with a parent, they will open a "Title 9" Abuse and neglect case. This means that a judge will be reviewing the Division's work with the family and can make decisions that impact the child and their parents. 

 

Foster parents ("resource parents") have a right to know about when these hearings are happening and to make written and oral statements. If you are not receiving notices about hearings or your right to make a statement, we recommend contacting the Children in Court team for the county the child was living in before they were removed ( https://www.njcourts.gov/courts/vicinages ). If the response you receive is inadequate, you may consider escalating the issue to the Presiding Judge of the Family Part in that county, the county's Assignment Judge, or the Administrative Office of the Courts ( https://www.njcourts.gov/public/aoc-contact-directory?language=pt-br ). Foster parents can provide judges with important information about how the child is doing (for example, how they are reacting to visits with their parents) and responding to services like therapy can begin almost immediately after accepting a placement. Unless you send this information directly to the court, there is a chance that this information may not make its way to the judge and will not be considered when decisions about the child are being made. 

 

Others who have relevant information about the child may also submit information and updates to the court, but should not expect to receive notice of the hearings unless they are also a parent of the child or their in-court testimony has been requested by one of the parties. These hearings are "closed" - meaning that only Division, staff parents, child, and their attorneys can participate without special permission from the court (for example, legal interns, experts in training, and CASA supervisors / volunteers). 

An attorney, known as a law guardian, will be appointed to represent the child in "Title 9" (Abuse & Neglect) and "Title 30" (Guardianship) proceedings. The law guardian is mandated to visit with their client and discuss the court process with them in an age-appropriate way, and may speak with others who have information about the child, share information with the court, hire experts to weigh in on the case, take legal positions, and request specific relief (court orders) on behalf of the child. Law Guardians are there to advocate for the child's wishes and can be strong champions for orders that help those wishes be safely accommodated (or otherwise facilitate the family's progress towards desired outcomes). However, in certain situations the law guardian may not be able to be a zealous advocate for the child's safety. If that is the case, they or others can request that a guardian ad litem be appointed to advocate for the child's best interests. The appointment of a guardian ad litem in child welfare cases is discretionary and has historically been somewhat uncommon. This makes it that much more important for resource parents, relatives, CASA Workers, and friends of the child to advocate staunchly for the child's comfort, needs, and safety. If you do not speak up for that child, it is possible that no one else will. Moreover, sometimes a strong group effort is needed, especially in cases where the Division is ignoring or minimizing concerns.

Not all cases of abuse and neglect lead to the removal of the child. It is quite possible that the child may be left in the situation, potentially with restrictions on their contact with one or both parents. If you are permitted to supervise the child's contact with their parents it is essential to take this role very seriously. Bending the rules because the parent seems fine on any particular day could have significant consequences and could result in you being deemed unfit to care for the child or supervise additional visits. 

The Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families is very proud to have reduced the number of children currently in foster care. Unfortunately, this reduction has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in services to help ensure the safety of children, and we have received numerous reports about children being left in or returned to unsafe situations. The child you care about may require your persistent help in continuing to document and escalate the situation until appropriate action is taken to protect the child.  

Waiting for Permanency

If you are struggling with a difficult situation and are concerned about the safety and well being of a child at substantial risk of trauma or abuse and neglect we want you to know that you are not alone. Keep advocating for that child and creating a paper trail of your concerns. Show up for the child whenever and however you are able so that they know that someone cares. Reach out to us for help brainstorming possible strategies and solutions. Consider joining us in sharing your story with lawmakers and others to help promote awareness of the need for systemic change. Individually we may feel powerless, but together we CAN make a difference. 

We are currently trying to help establish an Office of Ombudsman/Child Advocate for Children through bills pending in the New Jersey Senate and Assembly. 

 

In light of New Jersey's ongoing judicial shortage, we also support filing judicial vacancies to help ensure access to justice for New Jersey's children and Families. 

 

Please click on the button below to learn more about these issues and what you can do to help.

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