The plaintiff is the party who begins a civil lawsuit by filing a complaint. DYFS is the plaintiff in a termination of parental rights action against a parent. The lawyer for DYFS is a New Jersey state government employee called a deputy attorney general (DAG).
The defendant is the party who is sued by the plaintiff. In a termination of parental rights case, the parent is the defendant. As the defendant, you need to have a lawyer as soon as possible. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, you may be eligible to have a lawyer appointed for you through the Office of Parental Representation (OPR), which is a division of the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender (OPD).
The child or children named in the complaint are represented by a lawyer called a law guardian. The OPD also provides law guardians for children who are the subject of DYFS termination of parental rights cases.
How to get a lawyer
It is very important that you get a lawyer as soon as possible. If you can afford to hire a lawyer, you should do so immediately. Your county bar association’s lawyer referral service can suggest names of lawyers who can help you.
If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, you may qualify to have a lawyer represent you through the OPR. DYFS is required to provide you with contact information for the OPR office handling matters in the county in which you live. This information is required to be in the papers provided to you when DYFS files a complaint. You should try to contact the listed OPR office before the date of the first court hearing. DYFS is also required to provide notice of any initial court hearing in your case to OPR. This initial hearing is usually called an application for an order to show cause.
If DYFS filed a child abuse or neglect case against you before it filed a termination of parental rights case against you, you may have already been represented by an OPR lawyer. When the new case is filed, you must complete a new application for representation through the OPR. If the court determines that you have income low enough to be eligible for representation through the OPR, you may or may not be assigned the same lawyer who represented you in the child abuse or neglect case. If you were satisfied with the services of the OPR lawyer who has already represented you, you may request that lawyer by name.
If you contact the OPR, an OPR lawyer may represent you provisionally. This means that an OPR lawyer will appear on your behalf at the initial court hearing before you have actually applied for an OPR lawyer and before the court determines that your income qualifies you for representation by the OPR. If DYFS does not provide the OPR with notice of your case, or if you do not contact the OPR directly prior to the scheduled hearing, you will be able to apply for an OPR lawyer at your first court hearing by asking the judge for a lawyer. If you request a lawyer from the OPR as soon as you find out about the case, remember that you may be able to have a lawyer with you at your first court hearing.
To get an OPR lawyer as quickly as possible, go to the family intake or family reception office at the courthouse where your case has been filed as soon as you know that DYFS has filed an action against you. Tell the court staff that you would like a lawyer to represent you in your case. Bring with you a copy of any court papers you have received and proof of your income. You will have to provide information about your income and any property you own. The court, not the OPR, is responsible for determining whether, based on income, you qualify for an OPR lawyer.
Give the court a telephone number and an address where you can be reached. Ask to be notified as soon as your lawyer is appointed. If a week goes by and you do not hear anything, call the OPR headquarters in Trenton at 609-341-3832.
After your case is over, the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender (OPD) will send you a bill for the lawyer’s legal services. The bill will also include other expenses, such as expert witness fees, that the OPR pays in defending you. If you do not pay those fees, the court will place a lien for a period of 10 years on any property you own or may own in the future (such as a home, a bank account, or a car). You have the right to challenge the amount of the lien or your ability to pay. Even if you cannot pay, you will still receive legal services.
Legal Services of New Jersey’s Family Representation Project provides free legal advice and sometimes extended representation to low-income parents in Termination of Parental Rights matters. To apply for these services see Introduction.
Separate lawyers for each defendant
In a termination of parental rights case, the law requires that each parent have his or her own lawyer. This is so, even if both parents are asking that the child be returned to them so that they can raise the child together. Separate lawyers are necessary because the parents involved may disagree or take positions against each other during the case. Separate lawyers give each parent a better opportunity to make the best possible case.
Please also see How Can You Make the Best Use of Your Lawyer?.
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Copyright © 2011 Legal Services of New Jersey
This information last reviewed 10/28/11