New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. P.H. and J.C., A-0939-11T3; Appellate Division; opinion by Alvarez, J.A.D.; decided and approved for publication April 5, 2013. Before Judges Fisher, Alvarez and Waugh. On appeal from the Chancery Division, Family Part, Cumberland County, FN-06-0117-10. [Sat below: Judge Johnson.] DDS No. 20-2-9499 [8 pp.]

[At the court's direction, portions of the factual discussion and the court's rulings have been omitted from the published opinion.]

On June 20, 2011, J.C. was found to have engaged in acts of both abuse and neglect, as defined in N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21(c)(3) and (4), as a result of sexual conduct toward his two children, L.C. (Mary), born in July 2004, and K.C. (Tom), born in July 2004.

The court later terminated the litigation and allowed plaintiff, the Division of Youth and Family Services, to notify a church that had offered J.C. a position as a "youth pastor" that sexual abuse allegations against him had been substantiated.

J.C. appeals.

Held: The statutory scheme found in Title 9 and Title 30 does not allow the Department of Children and Families to notify a church that an individual the church intends to employ as a "youth pastor" was substantiated for child sexual abuse.

J.C. contends that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing the division to provide the church with the information that allegations of child sexual abuse against him were substantiated. The division counters that the issue is moot because J.C. did not pursue the position and therefore it did not release any information. The law guardian, however, urges the Appellate Division to affirm the order because the court and the division would otherwise lack the means to protect children in the church program, while possessing knowledge that J.C. sexually abused his own children, and had been substantiated for the sexual abuse of a 10-year-old cousin five years earlier.

Records, information, reports and findings related to Title 9 proceedings "shall be kept confidential and may be disclosed only under the circumstances expressly authorized" to certain entities. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a(b) does not include a church as an entity to which the division may, and on written request must, release child abuse information as defined in N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a(a). Nothing in the record establishes that the church in this case fits into any other category found in the statute, such as a day-care center, which would permit the release of information.

On a finding that an allegation of abuse and neglect is substantiated, the perpetrator’s name is entered into a central registry maintained by the division. The division can release central registry information to the entities listed in N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a(b)(1)-(23). Records may otherwise be disclosed only as authorized under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a(a)-(g). Churches are not included in either statutory section.

The law guardian analogizes this situation to that found in In re Allegations of Physical Abuse at Blackacre Academy, where the division supplied information regarding an ongoing child abuse investigation to the New Jersey Department of Education, among others, which was not explicitly entitled by statute to receive the information. Blackacre is distinguishable, however, because the Department of Education is the governmental agency having direct supervisory authority over children in educational institutions who are the subject of child abuse reports, and therefore falls within the purview of the statute.

The division bears the general obligation to take such action as shall be necessary to ensure the safety of the allegedly abused or neglected child. That is quite different from the disclosure sought to be made in this case. In Blackacre, the disclosures concerned an ongoing investigation of child abuse. In this case, the disclosures are intended to prevent the possibility of future abuse to as yet unknown "victims." The church’s activities are not only obviously dissimilar to those of the Department of Education, N.J.S.A. 30:5B-3(b) exempts religious organizations from the obligation to make mandatory central registry inquiries under the Child Care Center Licensing Act for positions such as that of youth pastor.

The law guardian further contends that the confidentiality shrouding child abuse and neglect proceedings is intended to protect children, not the abusers of children. Be that as it may, principles of statutory construction do not permit the Appellate Division to write "church" into either N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a(b) or 30:5B-3(b).

The division does not have the authority to disseminate any information to the church. That portion of the judge’s decision is therefore reversed.

For appellant — Peter Neely Milligan, designated counsel (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender). For respondents: P.H. — Michael S. Harwin (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender; John A. Salois, designated counsel, on the brief); New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services — Cynthia J. Schappell, Deputy Attorney General (Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General; Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel). For minors B.H., K.C., and L.C. — David R. Giles, designated counsel (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, Law Guardian).