NEWARK, NJ — New Jersey continues to make progress in implementing the first phase of a massive child welfare reform effort mandated by the settlement of a federal class action brought by Children’s Rights on behalf of children dependent on the state’s child welfare system, according to a report released today by the independent monitor in the case. However, while lauding New Jersey’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCF) for gains in adoption and foster parent recruitment and further reductions in its workers’ caseloads, the report also shows troubling gaps in the state’s data collection that could make it difficult to gauge progress going into Phase II of the reform effort, set to begin in January 2009.
Today’s report (PDF), which covers the first half of 2008, credits DCF with continuing an upward trend in the number of adoptions completed and the number of foster and adoptive parents licensed by the state. The monitor also found that workers’ caseloads throughout the state have been reduced to manageable levels and that DCF continues to improve training and mentoring opportunities for staff, while continuing to successfully implement a new Case Practice Model launched last year.
“There is no question that DCF has continued to make progress, and the new leadership seems to be successfully meeting most of the challenges it has faced,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights. “But it concerns us that DCF appears unable to collect the data necessary to ensure that the reforms remain on track, and we will be watching very closely to make sure that its leadership addresses these problems before they get out of control.”
The report notes several areas of DCF’s continued progress in implementing the court-ordered reforms:
- More children were adopted into permanent families. The department finalized 478 adoptions during the first half of 2008. DCF is currently on pace with its performance during 2007, when it completed a state record-breaking 1,540 adoptions for the year — a 17-percent increase from 2005.
- More foster and adoptive parents were licensed by the state. Between January and June 2008, DCFrecruited and licensed 992 new foster and adoptive homes, far exceeding the court-ordered target of 764 homes.
- DCF employees are better trained and have more manageable caseloads. During the first half of 2008,DCF met or exceeded the requirements of the settlement agreement with respect to caseload targets, supervisor-to-caseworker ratios, and training for DCF employees. Approximately 96 percent of DCFcaseworkers now carry a caseload of 15 or fewer children, in line with national standards. In 1999, caseworkers in Essex County alone carried caseloads of 70 to 90 children each.
- DCF is expanding health care services for children. DCF has begun implementing Child Health Units staffed by nurses and medical assistants in each of the state’s 47 regional child welfare offices. Though currently only four offices have fully developed Child Health Units, the monitor found in those areas that 77 percent of children had received required medical exams within 60 days of entering foster care and 95 percent of children had up-to-date immunizations.
But the report — the fourth since the court-enforceable settlement was reached — also notes areas in which the agency is falling short of required benchmarks. It shows that DCF provided medical exams to only 27 percent of children within 60 days of their entry in state custody — far short of the required 75 percent.
More troubling, due to a lack of data collected by the state, the monitor was unable to report at all on the delivery of other important health care services, including mental health assessments and immunizations. And while highlighting an overall gain in the number of licensed foster homes, the report shows DCF failing to license all prospective foster parents within 150 days of their application, as required by the settlement.
Children’s Rights filed the class action 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. Seven years later, 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.
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210