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Dealing with DYFS in New Jersey

Posted by attorney Anthony Van Zwaren

If your family comes into contact with DYFS in New Jersey two things may result. The first thing to do is to seek an attorney experienced in these types of cases.

What to Expect? There may be an investigation of an allegation of abuse or neglect that results in one of three conclusions: the charge was unfounded, meaning there is nothing further to be done and the matter will be closed, or unsubstantiated, meaning there are elements of possible neglect but that the facts are not sufficient to warrant intervention, or the concluson is founded. If the allegations is founded, the case may involve DYFS involvement with your family, either with court involvement or not. If there is a "founded" allegation, you should receive notification that the allegation has been substantiated, in which case you can choose to file for an administrative review, that must be done timely, within twenty days, otherwise, you forfeit that right and you or others in your family can be listed on the DYFS Central Registry.

Once a request for administrative review occurs, you will be able to contest DYFS's findings, but these typically can take a lot of time before you even get a hearing. There are two types of legal actions DYFS may take, one is for "care and supervision" usually for the less serious cases, where the child(ren) remain in the home but DYFS provides various services in the home to make sure things proceed well. This can include demands for substance abuse testing, ECAP services (home services where someone comes in the home and sees how things are going and are usually part-time), psychological testing, etc.

Should your children be removed, it is very important to try and seek out friends or relatives who can care for them. However, DYFS will conduct a background investigation of the proposed caretaker and any other adult that may be in the household so that anyone who has their own DYFS history, or who has been convicted of certain crimes can be excluded. Exclusions may occur for other reasons, such as an unsafe home, immigration issues, and the like.

For more serious offenses, DYFS will go to court and request a removal. An emergency removal may occur before the case is heard before a judge. If so, DYFS will then request what is called a "DODD" hearing to have the court endorse the removal. At this point, a Law Guardian will be appointed to legallly represent the interests of your children.

Again, once court sessions begin there will be certain regular matters usually called compliance reviews, where issues like visitation, court ordered services or other matters are resolved. More important sessions will be the "fact-finding" hearing and the dispositional hearing. The fact-finding hearing is perhaps the key point of the litigation until such time as the child(ren) are returned or DYFS seeks termination of parental rights. It is at this point where the parent(s) either stipulate to some charge (similar to a plea agreement) or they contest it. If DYFS does not prove it had adequate cause for intervention based upon a finding of abuse or neglect, by what's terms "preponderance of the evidence" then the case should be dismissed (sometimes DYFS will still ask for the court to monitor the situation but this should be contested).

If there is a finding, the case will proceed, again either to reunification or termination. Following the fact-finding, a permanency hearing will be held. The plan may be reunification with the family, termination of parental rights and placement for adoption, or what's called "kinship legal guardianship" which usually occurs when placement is with a relative such as a grandparent, sister, brother or even friend.

If the plan is termination, the initial proceeding, which is under an "FN" docket will be dismissed and a guardianship complaint will be filed. At this point, the matter will usually be set down for trial.

DYFS cases are very difficult and it is extremely important to have legal representation either through the Office of Parental Representation section of the Public Defenders or through private counsel. Because of the specialized nature of DYFS matters, if using private counsel, it is important to seek legal counsel knowledgeable of fighting DYFS cases because it is possible that a case can be fought and dismissed early on (for instance at the fact-finding hearing). Additionally, one may need experts such as psychologists specialized in matters of children in abusive households and in conducting bonding evaluations between parents and children.

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