Matter of Allegations of Sexual Abuse at East Park High School
Before Judges Long, Kleiner and Kimmelman.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: The opinion of the court was delivered by Long, P.j.a.d.
IN THE MATTER OF ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL ABUSE AT EAST PARK HIGH SCHOOL *fn1
 Argued April 21, l998
On appeal from New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services, Institutional Abuse Investigative Unit.
In l993, appellant Marjorie Spencer, a teacher in the East Park School system, was accused by a fellow teacher, Jeffrey Wallace, of inappropriate sexual behavior and physical conduct with a student, Arthur Edwards. Respondent Division of Youth & Family Services (DYFS) was notified by East Park School officials and it, in turn, contacted the county prosecutor and local law enforcement. All three agencies then investigated the allegations. This included interviews with Mrs. Spencer, Mr. Wallace, Arthur Edwards, students Richard Carlson and John Norman, other student witnesses, and school administrators. Mrs. Spencer denied all of the allegations against her. At the Conclusion of the investigation, the county prosecutor closed his file without charging Mrs. Spencer or presenting the matter to the Grand Jury. However, in February of l994, the investigating arm of DYFS, the Institutional Abuse Investigation Unit (IAIU), having given Mrs. Spencer the right to submit a sworn statement, which she declined to do, concluded that the allegations of sexual abuse against her had been "substantiated." Mrs. Spencer appealed that finding to us.
Subsequently, the East Park School Board filed fifteen tenure charges against Mrs. Spencer stemming from her alleged sexual abuse of Arthur Edwards, Richard Carlson and John Norman. After certifying the charges, the matter was transferred to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) for a hearing. DYFS then moved for and was granted a stay of this appeal pending the outcome of the tenure hearing which it argued might render moot the issues raised here. The sordid details of the allegations against Mrs. Spencer need not be related except to say that if the claims of Wallace, Edwards, Carlson and Norman had been proved, it would not only have warranted a finding of "substantiated" sexual abuse, but likely would have resulted in criminal charges along with the loss of Mrs. Spencer's tenured position. However, they were not sustained.
A three day hearing was held at which Carlson did not testify and Norman presented evidence favorable to Mrs. Spencer. Wallace, Edwards and another student, Peter Finch, testified for the school district. At the end of the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) dismissed all of the tenure charges against Mrs. Spencer. In so doing, she specifically rejected, as incredible, the testimony of Wallace and Edwards and the supporting testimony of Finch. Indeed, she characterized Edwards' testimony as "so unbelievable that it is understandable why he fled from New Jersey to avoid testifying before a grand jury." The ALJ fully accepted Mrs. Spencer's denial of the charges to which she testified in detail. Her fellow teachers' characterizations of her as a teacher above reproach was also credited by the ALJ who noted that Mrs. Spencer had worked in the school district since l98l without ever having a discipline charge or even a poor evaluation and that her conduct was "exemplary." The Commissioner of Education adopted the ALJ's decision as final and the State Board of Education affirmed upon the school district's appeal, declaring that the board "failed to meet its burden of demonstrating the truthfulness of the tenure charges."
Despite these Conclusions having been reached after a full hearing at which the allegations of sexual abuse against Mrs. Spencer were tested in the crucible of a trial, DYFS refused to alter its determination that the charges of sexual abuse against Mrs. Spencer were substantiated.
Mrs. Spencer then sought to pursue her earlier appeal of DYFS's findings of substantiated sexual abuse. After some procedural maneuvering, DYFS proposed a settlement: if Mrs. Spencer was willing to forego her appeal, it was willing to include information about the outcome of the tenure hearing in its report maintained in its Central Registry.
Mrs. Spencer declined the offer and now proceeds with her appeal challenging the propriety of the continued inclusion of her name in DYFS's Central Registry. More particularly, Mrs. Spencer contends that the manner in which DYFS reached its Conclusions denied her due process and that, in any event, DYFS is bound by the decision of the State Board of Education.
Statutory authority for DYFS to investigate and monitor child abuse allegations appear in N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.8 to -8.98. Under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.l0, a person who has reason to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse is required to report that suspicion to DYFS. Upon receiving such a report, DYFS must take immediate action to protect the child and must report the matter to the Central Registry within 72 hours. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.ll. The regulations adopted to implement the statute require DYFS to evaluate the available information to determine whether that allegation is "substantiated," "not substantiated" or "unfounded." See N.J.A.C. l0:l29A-3.3(a). These terms are defined as follows:
l. "Substantiated" when the available information, as evaluated by the Division representative, indicates that a child is an abused or neglected child as defined in N.J.A.C. l0:l33-l.3 because the child has been harmed or placed at risk of harm by a parent, caretaker or institutional caretaker.
2. "Not substantiated" when the available information, as evaluated by the Division representative, provides some indication that a child was harmed or placed at risk of harm, but does not indicate that the child is an abused or neglected child as defined in N.J.A.C. l0:l33-l.3; or
i. There is no evidence of conduct that would pose risk to the child;
ii. There is no evidence that a parent, caretaker, temporary caretaker, institutional caretaker or child was involved; or
iii. The available information indicates that the actions of the parent, caretaker, temporary caretaker, or institutional caretaker were necessary and reasonable and the incident was an accident.[ *fn2 ]
DYFS must notify the alleged perpetrator and others *fn3 of the outcome of its investigation. More particularly, DYFS must notify each person "identified as the perpetrator in a case of substantiated child abuse" that:
l. He or she has been identified as a perpetrator of child abuse or neglect;
2. His or her name and identifying information are entered into the Division's Central Registry, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.ll; and
3. He or she may have an opportunity to dispute the findings of a local Division office or institutional abuse investigation unit of the Division in accordance with N.J.A.C. l0:l20A.
These reports are "confidential", N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.40, but may be disclosed upon written request for certain statutorily authorized purposes including use by police in investigations of allegations of child abuse, by physicians who suspect abuse, by a court or a grand jury. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.l0a(b)(l) to -8.l0a(b)(8). In addition, disclosure may be made to:
Any person or entity mandated by statute to consider child abuse or neglect information when conducting a background check or employment-related screening of an individual employed by or seeking employment with an ...