New Jersey Child Welfare System Sustains Vital Improvements, but Must Strengthen Efforts to Meet Vulnerable Families’ Needs

NEWARK, NJ — While New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) is continuing to maintain its success in improving fundamental areas of the child welfare system, such as sustaining manageable caseloads and moving children out of foster care and into permanent homes, a new report says the state is falling short — sometimes by dramatic margins — in areas vital to the future of its long-running efforts to reform the system under a federal court order secured by Children’s Rights.

According to today’s report (PDF), issued by an independent monitor appointed by the federal court to track the state’s progress, DCF continues to meet or exceed its targets to recruit and license foster and adoptive families, giving the state a large pool of available homes for children entering care. Children are also continuing to move quickly to permanent, adoptive homes when they cannot return to their parents, with 85 to 95 percent of adoptions finalized within nine months of children’s placement with adoptive families.

However, the state has also committed to implementing a statewide model of case practice focused on giving families a greater role in how their cases are handled and designing case plans around what a family needs. According to the monitor, DCF is facing considerable challenges meeting those benchmarks meant to improve the system’s day to day interactions with families, which includes developing comprehensive case plans and holding family team meetings.

Additionally, DCF has been without consistent leadership for the last six months; however, just this month Governor Chris Christie named Allison Blake, a former administrator at Rutgers School of Social Work, as DCF’s new acting commissioner.

“There is no question New Jersey has come far in its efforts to fix child welfare statewide, but to continue building on this success and truly create sustainable reform, it is absolutely vital for DCF to have strong, stable leadership focused on immediately identifying ways to fix the areas where the state is falling short,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights. “At this stage of the reform, the state needs to focus on deficiencies in key practice areas to better demonstrate that the lives of kids and families are in fact improving.”

The report, evaluating DCF’s performance over the six-month period between July 1 and December 31, 2009, notes the state also achieved new progress tracking and increasing the number of children in foster care with access to health care, placing more children in family-like settings, and keeping sibling groups together while in foster care.

DCF has also continued its success in maintaining the foundation for reform. New Jersey now has one of the lowest rates of abuse in foster care in the country, and the number of children in foster care continues to decline. The state has also dramatically reduced the number of children sent out-of-state for behavioral and mental health services by building better capacity within the state.

Despite these accomplishments, the federal monitor reports DCF is having trouble implementing several critical areas of the statewide model of child welfare practice, which emphasizes giving families a stronger voice in critical decisions.

DCF is reporting dismal progress facilitating Family Team Meetings — a hallmark of the state’s new model of practice that gives families an opportunity to bring together their extended family, friends, and community leaders as helpful partners in their cases — for families living in areas where case practice training has been fully implemented. A mere 14 percent of families participated in a family team meeting at all — falling far short of the required benchmark to hold such meetings for 75 percent of those families within 30 days of placing their child into state custody.

Today’s report also finds that the state is only reporting 42 percent of children entering care had case plans developed within 30 days, failing at a crucial benchmark designed to identifying what a child and family needs to succeed, and mapping out how a caseworker can help them achieve it. Additionally, for those families who actually have case plans, only 69 percent received the appropriate six-month follow-up from their caseworkers to ensure the plans still reflect the family’s current needs.

The federal monitor points to other significant challenges facing the department in the last monitoring period. Less than 20 percent of families were adequately assessed within 30 days of their case closure for safety and risk of abuse, when the state should be performing safety and risk assessments for at least 98 percent of families before ending involvement with the family.

Frequent visitation is critically important at the beginning of a family’s involvement with DCF, and while the state is exceeding its target to visit children at least once per month, only 15 to 26 percent of children are being visited twice per month at the beginning of their DCF involvement. The state has also seen a surprising reduction in the number of young adults accessing the NJ Scholars program, indicating less youth aging out of foster care are accessing available supports for post-secondary education.

Children’s Rights filed a class action against New Jersey in 1999 on behalf of more than 11,000 children dependent upon the state child welfare system, seeking widespread improvements. In 2006, after a previous settlement agreement failed to yield positive results, Children’s Rights and co-counsel Drinker Biddle & Reath reached a new agreement with state officials, mandating sweeping reforms and resulting in DCF’s creation. The case is known as Charlie and Nadine H. v. Corzine.

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.

Related Media

Monitor finds progress in NJ child welfare reforms (AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, June 1, 2010)

Federal monitor finds progress, some setbacks for foster care in N.J. (Star-Ledger, June 1, 2010)