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LAW Home > Legal Topics > Family and Relationships > Division of Child Protection and Permanency/Child Welfare > Child Abuse and Neglect

Hidden Foster Care—Protecting Your Rights in the Child Welfare System



Child Protection Investigation

When the state’s Child Abuse Hotline receives a call (often called a referral), the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (“Division”) is required by law to send investigators to gather more information about the alleged child abuse/neglect. If you are involved in this type of investigation, you will have to make decisions every step of the way, including deciding what information to share with investigators, whether to use suggested services, and when to go to court.

Safety Plans

At the end of the investigation, even if your children are not removed from your home and there is no evidence of child abuse or neglect, Division investigators may decide that you need to participate in activities or services to keep your children at home. This requirement may be written in the form of a safety plan, or case plan. A safety plan is an agreement between parents and the Division that identifies and addresses problems that may be occurring in the family in an effort to secure the safety of the children involved. It outlines steps a parent can take to keep their children safe as they live together as a unified family. Examples include requiring children to go to counseling and having regular contact with a caseworker.

Additionally, safety plans often identify a “safety network” for the child, defined as individuals who can help “ensure the safety of the children.” Safety networks are often composed of the child’s relatives. It’s common for Division investigators to suggest placing your children with a kinship caregiver (a relative, friend, or the other parent) in the recommended safety plan. Other, more radical plans make parents leave their home so the children can stay with another adult (friend or relative) in the parent’s home. These suggestions are often sold with the promise of avoiding the court system and ensuring your children are not placed into the formal foster care system.

Hidden Foster Care

Parents are often told they must separate from their children during the investigation if they wish to avoid court-mandated separation, which could result in the placement of the children with complete strangers. Division investigators say that by signing the safety plan, parents will avoid a court hearing, the “removal” of their children, and formal foster care with its mandatory oversight and regulations. If you refuse to sign the safety plan, which may include an undesired modification of physical custody, the caseworker may threaten you with family court. If you do sign a safety plan agreement that transfers physical custody of your children to the safety network as a result of Division threats, the children are entered into something known as “hidden foster care.”

There are significant consequences for parents who are driven away from the formal foster care system and pressured into the hidden foster care system: (1) children are placed away from parents, who haven’t had the opportunity to challenge the allegations made against them; (2) parents give up the right to help with a family unification plan to get their children back after separation; (3) parents lose the right to schedule visits with their children; and (4) parents lose the right to a lawyer and the right to confront the evidence in court, stripping them of their right to due process.

Know Your Rights

When Division investigators come from the Child Abuse Hotline, you may initially refuse to let them into your home. But doing so will not end the investigation. If the Division has credible information that a child might be in danger, they can ask for a court order requiring you to allow them entry into your home. If Division investigators feel that your children are in imminent danger, they are legally permitted to remove your children from the home at any time without a court order. In that case, the Division is required to get a court order within two court days of removing your children and you will receive a notice to appear in court for a hearing. You have a right to bring an attorney with you to court, and you may be given an appointed attorney if you qualify financially.

As noted above, the Division may mislead parents into thinking that they should avoid going to court, but you should not sign a safety plan that gives physical custody to someone else if that is not what you want.

The Division should never threaten to take your children away in order to get you to comply with the investigator’s suggestions, whether through a case plan or a safety agreement. Safety and case plans are often created without counsel for the parents, allowing statements made by Division investigators to go unchecked. The Division should not ask you to make agreements to avoid court action without having you speak to an attorney first. An attorney will be able to advise you about the threat of removal and will help you navigate the foster care process with family unity as the top priority.

If you have any questions about your investigation, findings, and your case, please contact Legal Services of New Jersey’s Family Representation Project by calling LSNJLAWSM, LSNJ’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529), or apply online.      ​​