By Lou Bucceri, esq.

For anyone who works in a school, an allegation of child abuse leading to an investigation by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) is an occupational hazard. Consequently, all NJEA members should be prepared for how to respond to an accusation of abuse. For decades the law regarding the prevention of child abuse and neglect (N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10) has provided for a report and investigation of any “reasonable cause” to believe conduct potentially injurious to a child has occurred. Those investigations in a school setting are conducted by the Institutional Abuse Investigation Unit (IAIU) of the DCF (formerly DYFS).

Do not make the mistake of talking to the investigator on your own, no matter how much they attempt to tell you that it is a minor matter. No such allegation is minor until it is dismissed.

The IAIU’s definition of “reasonable” has become synonymous with “every” allegation of child abuse or neglect. In order to protect themselves from a DCF accusation of neglect, administrators automatically file a report with IAIU whenever any allegation of physical contact is reported, even when there is no injury and no reason to believe the report. That is the reality that has led to NJEA providing attorneys to represent hundreds of certified and support staff school employees each year in IAIU child abuse and neglect investigations.

Since 2013 DCF has attempted to hoard information about staff members who are investigated, even when their own investigators find insufficient evidence to support a finding of abuse or neglect. Over the last 20 years, NJEA attorneys have repeatedly taken cases to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, to rein in IAIU’s attempts at inserting negative comments about employees in reports that otherwise declare them to be innocent of any abusive conduct. On multiple occasions, the court has required IAIU to rewrite its reports to exclude groundless negative commentary, eliminate attempts to coerce employers to impose discipline when no abuse was found and required the agency to honor school employees’ constitutional right to due process.

What to do if you are the subject of an investigation

If you are an NJEA member and you are advised that you are the subject of an IAIU investigation, contact your NJEA UniServ office immediately so that you can be assigned legal counsel. Do not make the mistake of talking to the investigator on your own, no matter how much they attempt to tell you that it is a minor matter. No such allegation is minor until it is dismissed.

Your NJEA dues help you preserve your career when you are falsely accused of misconduct.

Having legal counsel gives you the advantage of knowing what to expect. Having a lawyer participate in your investigatory interview assures that there will be no miscommunication between you and the investigator. It also assures that you will not leave out important information and that you will have a witness to verify the accuracy of any later reports about your statement. Never discuss the situation that led to the allegation with students, staff or the administration once it is known that IAIU is involved. Doing so could compromise your defense by leaving you open to accusations of attempting to influence witnesses or of giving conflicting statements. If you need to meet with the administration at a later date you will have the advantage of doing so with representation after the outcome of IAIU’s investigation is known.

NJEA’s cadre of lawyers are among the most experienced in the state in dealing with such allegations, defending them and assuring that the excesses of government are brought under control. Your NJEA dues help you preserve your career when you are falsely accused of misconduct. Your reputation deserves to be preserved. Do not fail to call on NJEA when it is under attack.

Lou Bucceri, Esq. is a partner at Bucceri Pincus, and is one of NJEA’s network attorneys.

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