It happens in family and matrimonial disputes that litigants are investigated by the Department of Children and Families, which investigate claims of child abuse and neglect. In a recently published decision in S.C. v. New Jersey Department of Children and Families, the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed whether findings of “not established” by he Department of Children and Families (DCF) without a hearing and without informing the investigated person of the opportunity to challenge and supplement DCF’s record violates due process.
The Supreme Court explained that since 2013, DCF could make one of four findings: that an allegation of abuse or neglect was “substantiated”, “established”, “not established” or “unfounded” pursuant to N.J.A.C. 3A:10-7.3(c). A finding of “not established” would mean that findings are based on some evidence of a child being harmed or placed at risk of harm, but not necessarily by a preponderance of the evidence. A finding that an allegation is “unfounded” is subject to expunction. A record has to be retained for any of the other findings. While DCF records are intended to be confidential, N.J.S.A. 9:6-810a(a) provides for circumstances in which the release of information about reports to other agencies.
In this case, a mother was accused of abusing one of her children by engaging in corporal punishment. The incident was reported to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) after the 7 year old boy refused to make a Mother’s Day card for his mother at school, claiming that she hit him with an open hand and with a spatula. When DCF interviewed the boy, he said that his mother “smacks” him, and that she has hit him on the bottom with a spatula, although he could not remember when that had last happened. He also said that his father hit him with his hand. The child’s sisters told DCF that their parents sometimes hit them with an open hand but denied that their parents hit them with a spatula. None of the children had marks or injuries. The children’s school principle stated that the boy’s parents were involved, that school personnel had not had concerns about the family, and that the boy had behavioral problems in the past but that his behavior had improved. The boy’s mother admitted to hitting the children with an open hand but denied hitting them with a spatula. She said she smacks a spatula on the counter to get the children’s attention. The boy’s father admitted to spanking the children lightly, but denied hitting the children or seeing his wife hit the children with any objects. He had seen her smack the counter with a spatula.