The New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) investigates all calls to the statewide abuse or neglect hotline. These investigations can be confusing and intimidating. If you are accused of abuse or neglect, it is important that you know your rights during the process, and the possible outcomes of an investigation. A recent case called S.C. v. New Jersey Department of Children and Families, may have an effect on your rights in a DCF investigation.
Possible outcomes of a DCF investigation
A DCF investigation will result in one of four possible outcomes:
What is the difference between “substantiated” and “established”?
The difference between a result of substantiated and a result of established can be confusing. One important difference is that, if DCF finds that your case is substantiated, your name will go on the Child Abuse Registry, and cannot be removed. The registry is a list with the names of people DCF has found responsible for child abuse or neglect. If your name is on the registry, it could prevent you from having certain types of jobs. Certain employers check the registry when hiring a new employee. This is especially likely if the job involves working with children. Having your name on the registry will also prevent you from adopting or becoming a foster parent to a child in your family in the future. If DCF finds that your case is established, your name will not go on the Child Abuse Registry. However, if you have multiple established cases, DCF may eventually put your name on the registry.
What is the difference between “not established” and “unfounded”?
The difference between a result of not established and a result of unfounded can be confusing. An important difference is that unfounded decisions can be expunged (erased from the state record) if there are no other calls to the child abuse hotline or future investigations. Not-established decisions will not be erased from the state record. If the result of your DCF investigation is not established, your name will not be added to the Child Abuse Registry, but DCF will keep the information in its internal records. Note that both findings can affect your family planning—preventing you from adopting or becoming a foster parent to a child in your family in the future.
What happened in S.C. v. New Jersey Department of Children and Families?
DCF’s Investigation and Finding
In this case, DCF investigated a claim that S.C. had physically abused her child with corporal punishment. After investigating, DCF found that the claim that S.C. abused her child was not established. DCF found some evidence that the child was harmed or at risk of being harmed, but did not find enough evidence to take any next steps. DCF’s finding that the claim was not established also meant that DCF would keep S.C.’s name and case in its records, but S.C.’s name would not be added to the Child Abuse Registry.
S.C.’s Challenge and the Court’s Ruling
DCF sent S.C. a letter telling her that the claims that she abused her child were not established. However, the letter did not explain how DCF made this decision. It did not include the evidence that was used or give S.C. the opportunity of a hearing to explain whether or not she agreed with DCF’s finding. Because of this, S.C. challenged DCF’s decision and argued that it violated her rights.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey found that DCF did in fact violate S.C.’s rights. The court found that DCF needed to give S.C. “meaningful notice” of the finding. This means that DCF needed to give S.C. a summary of why it decided the claim that she abused her child was not established. DCF needed to explain to S.C. what evidence it used to make its decision.
The court also found that DCF needed to give S.C. the opportunity to explain whether or not she agreed with DCF’s finding before DCF made a final decision. It is important to note that the court decision did not say that DCF needed to give S.C. an official hearing. The court decided that, because not- established findings are not made public, DCF did not need to give S.C. an official hearing.
S.C. also argued that the not-established finding was unreasonable since DCF found that she did not abuse her child. In other words, because DCF found that she did not abuse her child, the outcome should have been unfounded and her name should not be kept in DCF’s records. The Supreme Court of New Jersey disagreed and found that the not-established finding was indeed reasonable. S.C.’s name will remain in DCF’s records, but it will not be added to the Child Abuse Registry.
How does S.C. v. New Jersey Department of Children and Families affect my rights during a DCF investigation?
As a result of S.C.’s case, the Supreme Court of New Jersey spelled out specific rights that individuals have during a DCF investigation.
If you have any questions about your rights during a DCF investigation, please contact LSNJ’s Family Representation Project by completing our online hotline application, or by calling 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529).
This information last reviewed: Dec 9, 2020