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The Role of the Fact-Finding Hearing in DYFS Litigation

Child protective litigation involving D.Y.F.S. both confuses and frustrates parents caught in D.Y.F.S.’s dragnet.  The early part of the process seems hurried and incomplete.  Early hearings are ususally performed in a summary manner, that leaves out details that the parent believes are important.  Parents are entitled to a more in-depth hearing called a Fact-Finding Hearing.  This article provides a primer on the basics of the Fact-Finding Hearing.

New Jersey law defines a fact-finding hearing simply as “a hearing to determine whether the child is an abused or neglected child as defined herein.” N.J.S.A.9:6-8.44.  When it is time to hold a fact-finding hearing, the Family Part judge holds a full hearing to make that determination.  At a fact-finding hearing, a parent is entitled to be represented by legal counsel.  D.Y.F.S. has the burden of proof, and must prove the allegations of abuse or neglect against a parent by a preponderance of the material, relevant and competent evidence.  A parent has the right to challenge D.Y.F.S.’s evidence and cross-examine any witnesses.  A parent has the right, but not the obligation, to testify and/or present evidence on their own behalf.

When it is time for the fact-finding hearing, a parent has two options.  The parent may either exercise their right to a full hearing, or the parent may enter into a stipulation of abuse or neglect.

The potential benefits of a fact-finding hearing are (1) that the court can rule in the parent’s favor, and dismiss the case; and (2) that if the court does rule that there has been no abuse or neglect, then the parent’s name must be removed from DYFS’s Central Registry.  This does happen, and our firm has been successful in many fact-finding hearings over the years.  The potential down side of a fact-finding hearing is that if the parent loses, the the court has heard testimony and evidence that is damaging to the parent and to the parent’s rights both in the near- and long-term.

The potential benefits of a stipulation are that the court will see that the parent acknowledges that there is a problem, and will be able to focus on the good things that the parent is doing to address the problem.  The downside of a stipulation is that the litigation continues, and the parent’s name remains in the DYFS Central Registry.  In many instances where abuse or neglect is clear, the stipulation is the more beneficial option.

Each case is unique.  Each family is unique.  When confronting your options at the time of a fact-finding hearing, you must consider all of your options.  Discuss your case and the law with an experienced attorney.  Howes & Howes would be happy to discuss your case with you.

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