In re Guardianship of Cope

New Jersey Parents Have the Right to Due Process in Child Services Trials

Case Established Crucial Due Process Rights for Parents in NJ Children’s Services Bureau Matters

Rights when Accused of Child Abuse in NJIn addition to existing statutes, outcomes from previous cases can have important implications for current child services cases. It can be challenging to understand these impacts, so having an experienced DCPP lawyer at your side can help to alleviate these concerns and give you a roadmap for what to expect. The case regarding Guardianship of Cope goes back over 50 years yet, it is still good law today and many of our current rules and procedures are the result of this ruling. In this very old but still very important case, the New Jersey Appellate established in 1969 crucial due process rights for parents.

In this case, the Essex County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court had given author for care, custody, and guardianship to the New Jersey State Bureau of Children’s Services. The mother was involved with DCP&P over the course of several years.  She had two young daughters, three and four years old, and at times, consented to placing her children outside of her home.  Back then, DCP&P was called the New Jersey State Bureau of Children’s Services.  The Bureau believed that the mother was incapable of providing a quality home for the children and consequently, petitioned the court to acquire custody.  The petition itself was very general and did not articulate any specific mistreatment.

A hearing was held and similarly, the Bureau did not identify any specific acts of abuse or neglect and moreover, failed to point to any specific injuries or harm done.  Rather, the Bureau merely expressed to the trial court that the children are better served under their care.  Also, the evidence put forward at the hearing was mostly hearsay and consisted of second hand accounts and reports surrounding the condition of the mother’s home. The vast majority of this evidence was hearsay and staff members working with the Bureau were allowed to share this evidence multiple times despite objections by the mother’s counsel. Collectively, the testimony expressed that the children were in poor physical and mental health before the Bureau intervened and while under their care, the children flourished.

Based upon the hearsay testimony, the trial court found that the children were deprived children and awarded custody to the Bureau.  However, the trial judge failed to specify how it reached its conclusion.  The judge did not explain what it meant by deprived and did not make any finding that the children were abused or neglected.  Additionally, the trial judge did not find that the mother was incapable of caring for her daughters. When the order was handed down, it terminated parental rights between the mother and the children. In essence, the trial court turned over custody of two children based in large part on second-hand accounts of what occurred and failed to inform the mother as to why.

This raised important questions during the case and appeal period about what evidence can be considered competent when most of it comes from statements made by government employees responsible for the investigation. When the mother appealed the ruling, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision.  The Appellate Justices did not decide whether the mother committed any acts of abuse or neglect nor did they determine whether the mother was fit to parent. Instead, the Court established a set of rules that must be followed in order for parents to have a fair trial.

Is Hearsay Allowed during Child Abuse and Neglect Trials in New Jersey?

The Appellate Court first took notice that almost all the evidence presented at the hearing in this case was hearsay.  As a general rule, hearsay is admissible evidence.  Nevertheless, certain types of civil and administrative proceedings permit the use of hearsay.  Typically, these are less serious matters where government efficiency outweighs the interests of in-person testimony.  There are also other occasions where the evidence is considered hearsay, but the evidence is still inherently reliable and therefore, can still be considered by the court.

In the context of child-welfare matters, the Court accepted the fact that requiring every person involved in a child abuse case to come to court to provide in person testimony would create disruption to the proceedings and overburden the court.  However, the Appellate Division also acknowledged that the issue at hand is a parent’s fundamental right to parent their child, and therefore, the parent must be given a fair opportunity to challenge the validity of the evidence.  The Court further held, given the seriousness nature of the case, the evidence relied upon by the trial court must be trustworthy.

As such, in order to strike a balance between efficiency and fairness, the Appellate Court ruled that the Bureau may admit some hearsay evidence in the form of reports if the documents were prepared by Bureau caseworkers or professional consultants.  The Court believed that such evidence was reliable and therefore, can be trusted by the fact-finder.  Additionally, the parents are free to introduce any evidence they may possess that contradicts the reports.  On the other hand, the Court further ruled, if the material is not prepared by a Bureau agent, such as the police or non-consulting doctor, the documents cannot be admitted unless the person who prepared the report testifies on the witness stand.

The key impact of the Guardianship of Cope decision on DCPP cases today is that the case formally established the conditions allowed to admit hearsay in court proceedings. Evidence in these cases involving children is held to a standard as reliable as the circumstances will allow. This evidence should be balanced by the court with a goal of giving full protection to the parent’s rights. As such, it has to be submitted in accordance with the rules of evidence and must be reported by personnel, prepared from their firsthand knowledge of the case, in the course of their usual duties, and at a time reasonably correlated with the facts presented.

Four Due Process Rules to Protect Parents Accused by Child Protective Services

In addition to the new evidentiary rule, the Appellate Court also mandated when the Bureau files a complaint, it must make specific allegations.  It cannot simply submit a broad or general claim that a parent committed an act of abuse or neglect.  The parent involved in the case must be given fair notice of the charge so he or she can prepare a proper defense.  Likewise, at the hearing, the Bureau must submit proofs that support the specific claims alleged in the complaint.  The parents again should be given a fair opportunity to present a defense and they cannot do that if the Bureau’s case changes in the middle of the hearing.  And lastly, at the conclusion of the hearing, the trial judge must articulate how it reached its decision so a reviewing court can adequately examine the case.

Accordingly, the In re Cope decision established four due process rules that help protect parents.  The first rule concerns the exclusion of hearsay and the ability to effectively cross-examine witnesses.  As the Court held, reports that are not directly prepared by DCP&P employees or their consultants are deemed inadmissible hearsay.  Meaning, if the Division wishes to submit a police report into evidence, they must call the officer who wrote the report to the witness stand.  This is very important because it allows a parent to effectively challenge the veracity of the document.  Before Cope, documents not prepared by the Division could still be considered by the Court.  This was problematic and unfair to parents because they could not question the author of the report and thus, could not adequately show that the report was inaccurate.  After Cope, the person who prepared the document must testify, which in turn, allows the parent to possibly show that the report is false and therefore, should not be considered by the judge.

The second and third rule concern proper notice and overall fairness.  The Cope Court ruled when DCP&P files a complaint, the agency must assert specific facts that support a finding of abuse or neglect.  Under the old standard, the Division could file a vague and inexact complaint, leaving the parent unclear about what he or she is being accused of.  Consequently, it was very difficult for litigants and their attorneys to effectively prepare a defense.  Nevertheless, following the Cope decision, DCP&P must give the parents adequate notice of the charges and therefore, they can properly prepare their respected cases.

Applying that same rationale, the Court went further and held, if a hearing is conducted, the proofs put forward at the hearing must correspond with the allegations set forth in the complaint.  It would be completely unfair if during the course of a hearing, the Division could change the charges or add new charges.  On top of that, it would be unfair if the Division could introduce evidence unrelated to the accusations listed in the complaint.  However, after Cope, the parents are entitled to fair notice concerning the nature of the charges and evidence that will be used against them.

The final rule helps protect a parent’s ability to file an appeal.  It’s important to understand, when an individual files an appeal, the Appellate Court is not granting the person a second trial.  Rather, the Court is examining whether the trial court committed any errors that wrongfully impacted the case.  Part of that process is reviewing the trial judge’s decision and scrutinizing whether the judge properly applied the controlling law to the underlying facts.  In the Cope case, the trial judge did not explain how he reached his decision and therefore, the Appellate Court could not properly review the matter.  Consequently, the Court instructed all lower court judges that you must articulate your findings and furthermore, must explain how you reached your decision.  As a result, if a parent believes the trial court made a mistake when rendering its decision, the parent can file an appeal and the Appellate Court will be in a position to correct any errors.

Protect Your Rights when Facing Court with DYFS in NJ

If you are currently involved in a DCPP case that will have critical outcomes for your children and your relationship with them, you need to take your case seriously and engage the services of a qualified New Jersey child abuse lawyer as soon as possible. Contact our offices today to discuss the evidence involved in your child services case and to how you can potentially leverage the cross-examination to call into question the reliability of information shared. It is essential to have a legal team experienced in challenging hearsay issues and possible violations of your rights in DYFS proceedings. Make sure that you are prepared with a solid defense strategy. Call (908)-356-6900 or request a free consultation online today.

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