Public Defenders exist in criminal cases, but does a parent have the right to counsel in a DCPP case?
Yes, in Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP, formerly DYFS) litigation, parents have the right to apply for a public defender. A public defender is appointed if a person cannot afford to hire their own counsel. A person must qualify financially for a public defender, the same as in criminal court. The Office of the Public Defender has a special unit called the Office of Parental Representation. Those attorneys specialize in DCPP cases and are truly experts in this niche area of the law. It is all they practice day in and day out. If there is a conflict or multiple defense attorneys need to be appointed, there are private criminal defense attorneys who work as contractors for the office.
A litigant who starts off as pro se, representing themselves, is permitted to hire a private attorney to represent at any point throughout the course of litigation. Likewise, a pro se litigant or someone who initially hires a private family law attorney is permitted to later on apply for a public defender. The benefit to hiring a family law attorney or applying for a public defender is they understand the law, procedure and process, whether DCPP should be referring the parent to reasonable services and programs, know when DCPP is overreaching, and, are able to evaluate DCPP’s information and evidence before the court.
The NJ Office of the Public Defender (OPD) is appointed in a variety of matters in addition to criminal, such as the:
- Office of Parental Rights
- Office of the Law Guardian
- Recovery Court (previously called drug court)
- Division of Mental Health Advocacy (including involuntary commitment and guardianship).
The Office of Parental Rights and Office of the Law Guardian are administratively separated to avoid conflict. They have separate department heads, separate offices and different staff, including attorneys, investigators and administrative support.
Fun Fact: In 1967, NJ opened the first centralized public defender’s office in the country! Office of the Public Defender | History (nj.gov).