Reunification Through the Division of Child Protection and Permanency in New Jersey
What is the Process to Seek Reunification Through the Division of Child Protection and Permanency?
It is a terrifying experience for most families facing the removal of their children. Parents have the inherent right to raise their children how they see fit as long as the raising of their children does not consist of any negligence or child abuse. The Division of Child Protection and Permanency get calls all day long with reports of cases of child abuse and/or neglect, some true and some false. This first contact initiates a family’s involvement with a possibly life-changing ordeal not easily surmounted. For DCP&P, this first contact initiates an investigation that is conducted with the utmost respect for the safety of the children.
Can a Family Avoid Needing Reunification?
Once centralized screening accepts the report/referral, the matter is assigned to an office local to the location of the child. As of 2021, there are 25 local offices throughout the state, with at least one in each county and two offices in Camden, Essex, and Hudson. This office will either investigate any report of abuse and/or neglect or assess the possible neglect of the child. After this, the experienced professionals at DCP&P will make a determination through investigatory means that rival the best detective agencies in the country. They will find that the children are either safe or the child requires a “safety plan” and/or “permanency.”
A “safety plan” puts into effect any and all conditions and requirements that any parental figures must adhere to in order to prevent a future investigation or the removal of the children from the custody of said parents. This is done according to what results the investigation yields and depends upon the urgency and immediacy required by the matter. The DCP&P is officially titled a Child Safety Protection Plan, and it is a legal document. Failing to adhere to it warrants the removal of children from the custody of the caretakers. These are not suggested guidelines of care, the conditions are mandatory changes in caretaking that the parental figures must abide by in order to retain their parental rights and the joy of raising their children.
When Does a Child and their Parent Need Reunification?
If the prompted investigation results in a determination by DCP&P that the children must be removed from the “care” of the parental figures. If circumstances warrant emergent removal, Division then files an Order to Show Cause. If granted, the children can be removed, placed in temporary care, and the Division can file their complaint the next day. At this point, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency will file a complaint for the custody of any children they have found to be in danger (not emergent). If the court grants this relief and approves the application, the children are removed and immediately moved into a “resource home.”
A “resource home” is what used to be called as a foster home, otherwise known as a temporary place of residence for the children being protected. Once this is done, the court sets a preliminary hearing date, at which point a Judge may decide your immediate fate. The Judge will order DCP&P to continue with their investigation, as well as decide where the child should live during said investigation. The Judge may also conclude the investigation having not found grounds to continue. Judges have wide discretion here, and can order many evaluations to be completed, such as for substance abuse. They can get creative in their solutions while keeping the ultimate goal of the best interest of the child at the forefront of their mind.
During the resource stay, DCP&P will attempt to locate permanent solutions to the children’s transience. This stage of the process begins the weighing and assessing any “permanency” plans. Depending on the seriousness of what the investigators find, DCP&P will always try to keep the family together. This process begins with the ultimate goal being reunification with the family. A DCP&P worker and/or supervisor begin engaging the children’s family and relatives by gathering extensive family history, discuss both short and long-term permanency goals (placement), and ensuring the parental adherence to whatever conditions are required, if applicable. In gathering family history, the Division finds possible permanency solutions in the form of relatives, no matter how distant they may be.
Waiting for a Decision on Family Reunification
An all-encompassing inventory of the child’s needs and whatever is essential to their development functioning is taken through a Comprehensive Health Evaluation for Children exam or a diagnostic assessment if needs are known in their entirety. Within 30 days, the Division workers assigned to the case will know the likelihood of reunification between children and parents. This forks their process towards reunification or permanency.
What are the Different Stages of the Reunification Process?
There are numerous stages to this process, including a fact-finding period, known as discovery, where both parties gather as much information as possible in order to argue their case. This leads into a fact-finding hearing where you or an attorney can argue your case, and finally, a dispositional hearing at which a Judge will rule on the ultimate issues of the matter. A Judge will inform you that it has either been proven or disproved that you abused or neglected your child. This hearing includes judicial instruction on what must be done to have a chance at reunifying with your child and whether or not the children may live with you while you complete what the court requires.
Some time later, a review of your status is heard in court, and depending on your progress, a permanency hearing may be granted. Permanency hearings are only granted if the case has been opened for more than a year, and it is at this hearing that DCP&P offers their long-term solution. You may rebut this proposal with an alternative arrangement, but ultimately the child must be safe.
Three Scenarios in Family Reunification Cases
1. Worst Case Scenario and Exceptions
Permanency Plans include those offered in response to parents that have shown unsatisfactory improvement according to DCP&P, and if this is the case, adoption avenues will be further explored between the 9th and 12th months of the first year. If the parents need more time to show more improvement after having shown some, exceptions can be made, and these exceptions can be argued by experienced attorneys.
An experienced attorney will be the only way to prevent the worst case scenario from happening and ensure that the court and DCP&P both know that you are the safest and healthiest option for your child. The worst case scenario is a complete termination of parental rights through the adoption of your child by someone other than you. The goal, as mentioned before, is always reunification. It is within the first year that reunification is assessed, and depending on the Division’s feedback throughout their specific approach to your case, it will require the help of a seasoned attorney who has done this before.
2. Family Reunification Assessment to Turn the Tide
Reunification is determined by the New Jersey Family Reunification Assessment in a program called NJ SPIRIT. This is assessment is triggered when a child has been removed from their home or if a family is being considered as a place of permanency for child that was removed. It determines a wide range of factors that show improvement or parental stagnation. It’s completed no later than 3 months from placement and every three months thereafter. It is also completed before every court hearing, and at anytime the child may be considered for reunification and return to their parents. The goals pursued by DCP&P may change according to what these evaluations yield when completed. It is never too late to turn the table in your favor with an experienced attorney who will fight for retention of your parental rights and delay pursuing the final adoption hearing. If adoption is not feasible for your case, a Kinship Legal Guardianship may be pursued, in which case a person that the child trust becomes a guardian as all other efforts are exhausted.
3. Evidence of Change in Circumstances
The NJ Family Reunification Assessment MUST SHOW a complete change from the circumstances that have initiated this horrific process. DCP&P will not accept “mere attendance or compliance.” Experienced attorneys will stress the importance of showing, through your actions, how much your child means to you, and what you are willing to do to regain not only their custody but, more importantly, their trust. How fast you change the world your children forcibly were removed from will determine how fast they return to the brand new world created by you for them. This review process rivals Intensive Supervision Parole (ISP) for dangerous criminals released from prison. It is a strict program and requires nothing less than perfection. Experienced attorneys will tell you their predictions for DCP&P conduct, patterns, and what is a priority in terms of impressing upon your case worker what you are willing to do for your children.
Why Hire an Attorney if DCPP Chooses not to Reunify Your Family
There is a plan set forth by DCP&P for their employees to adhere to as soon as this process begins. There is so much literature out there on how to abide by the rules and guidelines, but even if that is done, they will not accept “mere attendance or compliance.” An experienced attorney will highlight for DCP&P the transformative attributes of your life and passionately argue for your children’s return to your care. Your attorney should be experienced with the adoption litigation procedure just in case it comes to that. Reunification can happen at ANY stage in the process.
Reading what you can online or in a book doesn’t accomplish anything but an education on what could happen. How can you reunite with your children as soon as possible? You might as well ask, “how long can you hold your breath?” What if I told you there are attorneys that can be your air supply, that will exponentially shorten the time away from your child. Our experienced child abuse and neglect attorneys not only know the DCP&P standards, procedures, and policies but we are trusted advisors and representatives for people facing investigations and court proceedings throughout New Jersey in towns like Woodbridge, Edison, Paramus, Cranford, Fort Lee, New Brunswick, and elsewhere in New Jersey. We appear regularly before those who tell DCP&P what is actually going to happen: Judges in Court. This is a serious and heartbreaking experience for many families, and it requires nothing less than giving absolutely everything you can towards a favorable conclusion as quickly as possible. Call (908)-356-6900 to speak with a member of our dedicated team today.