NEWARK, NJ — New Jersey has successfully completed the first phase of a massive child welfare reform effort mandated by the settlement of a federal class action brought by Children’s Rights, according to a report released today by the independent monitor in the case — and the state’s abused and neglected children and at-risk families are getting significantly better care and services as a result.
Operating under court order, the state has thoroughly reformed the structure, management, and workforce of its child welfare system, creating the cabinet-level Department of Children and Families (DCF), hiring hundreds of additional caseworkers, reducing caseloads for workers throughout the state, and implementing more comprehensive training for its staff. With the help of national and local child welfare experts, DCF has also developed and is implementing a new statewide model of child welfare practice that emphasizes keeping children with families, preferably their own, and engaging children and families in critical decision-making.
At the same time, the report (PDF) says, the state has substantially increased the number of children adopted out of foster care annually and expanded its pool of available foster families, reduced the number of children it places in foster homes out of state and in shelters rather than with foster families, and expanded health care, family preservation, and other services for children in need.
Although the report notes some areas of concern as the state moves into the second phase of the reform effort — during which the emphasis of the court-ordered benchmarks for improvement shifts even more heavily toward ensuring better outcomes for children and families — it commends Governor Jon S. Corzine and DCF’s leadership for their continued commitment to progress, and calls on state officials to remain focused as they confront the challenges ahead.
“New Jersey’s child welfare system is being transformed by this court-ordered reform effort in ways that are producing increasingly clear and significant improvements in the lives of the state’s abused and neglected children and their families,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights. “Now DCF must not only maintain the reforms it has made, but also translate them into still better results for the kids and families who depend on it, and Children’s Rights will continue to monitor its progress closely.”
Today’s report, the fifth issued by the independent monitor appointed by the court to track the reforms since the 2006 settlement agreement requiring their implementation, evaluates DCF’s performance from July 1 to December 31, 2008, and summarizes the agency’s overall performance over the past two and a half years. Among the measures ofDCF’s progress:
- More children have been adopted into permanent families. After setting a new state record by finalizing 1,540 adoptions in 2007, DCF maintained a steady pace in 2008, finalizing 1,374 adoptions for the year.
- More foster and adoptive homes are available for children. DCF licensed 2,169 new foster and adoptive homes in 2008, including 903 new kinship-care licenses enabling children in foster care to live with relatives rather than in unfamiliar foster homes. For the second consecutive year, the state posted a net gain of more than 800 foster and adoptive homes — a vast improvement over the net losses it routinely posted in previous years.
- DCF has improved health care, family preservation, and other services for children in need. DCF has begun creating specialized units in each local field office to manage the health care needs of children in foster care, and has expanded the capacity of state-run substance abuse treatment centers for parents and children.DCF has also launched a new initiative to provide preventive services to pregnant women and young children deemed at risk of abuse or neglect, and created new centers to provide locally-based services aimed at keeping families together.
- DCF has increased financial support for foster families. As of January 2009, the state had met its court-ordered obligation to increase monthly support payments to foster parents — provided to help them cover cost of food, clothing, and other basic needs of children in foster care — to reflect the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimated child-care costs. In 2008, DCF increased these payments by an average of $168 per month.
- Child welfare workers are better trained and have more manageable caseloads. In 2008, DCF met or exceeded all court-ordered caseload targets and training requirements for DCF caseworkers and supervisors. Approximately 99 percent of DCF caseworkers now carry manageable caseloads in line with national standards. As recently as September 2006, workers in 39 percent of DCF local offices were overloaded with caseloads that were higher than national standards.
Amid the substantial progress, the report notes some challenges that remain as New Jersey enters the second phase of the reforms, which began in January 2009. DCF is still placing some children inappropriately in shelters rather than foster homes, including five children under the age of 13 for whom such placements are completely prohibited under the court order. Of the 421 children over 13 who were placed in shelters in the second half of 2008, 46 were placed there inappropriately, according to today’s report. Additionally, despite an increase in the total number of foster and adoptive homes licensed, the state fell short of the requirement to complete the licensing process within 150 days.
Children’s Rights filed the class action now known as Charlie and Nadine H. v. Corzine in 1999 on behalf of the more than 11,000 children dependent upon New Jersey’s child welfare system. In 2006, after a previous settlement agreement with the state failed to yield improvements, Children’s Rights and co-counsel Drinker Biddle & Reath reached a new agreement with the Corzine administration, mandating top-to-bottom reform of New Jersey’s long-failing child welfare system and resulting in the creation of a separate Department of Children and Families.
The complete monitoring report and more information on Children’s Rights’ campaign to reform New Jersey’s child welfare system can be found at www.childrensrights.org/newjersey.
Higher Marks for Child Welfare System (The Star-Ledger, 04/28/2009)
Child Welfare Agency Progressing, Report Says (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 04/28/2009)