New Jersey Continues Making Progress toward Child Welfare Reform

NEWARK, NJ — New Jersey’s child welfare agency remains on pace in implementing the first phase of a massive reform effort mandated by the landmark settlement of a federal class action brought by Children’s Rights on behalf of children in the state’s custody, according to report released today by the court-appointed independent monitor in the case. But the report also notes looming challenges as the state moves toward Phase II, set to begin in January 2009, including the recent departure of Department of Children and Families (DCF) Commissioner Kevin Ryan and other key personnel.

Today’s report, which covers the second half of 2007, credits DCF with significant gains in the number of foster children adopted into permanent families and the number of foster and adoptive parents licensed by the state. The report also cites workforce improvements — including a reduction in the number of children assigned to each caseworker and more rigorous, hands-on training for DCF employees — as well as the successful launch of a new case-practice model designed to improve outcomes for children and families in New Jersey.

“The progress noted in this report illustrates how far New Jersey has come in turning its failing child welfare system around — and how effective court oversight has been in ensuring that the required reforms get made,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights. “But DCF has lost key members of its leadership team just as it is reaching a critical juncture of its reform. The progress it has made is still very fragile, and without strong leadership and diligent follow-through in the coming months, it could easily stagnate or even fall apart.”

The report notes several measures of DCF’s progress in implementing the court-ordered reforms:

  • More children were adopted into permanent families. The department set a new state record in 2007 by finalizing 1540 adoptions for the year — a 17 percent increase from 2005 — exceeding the target of 1400 adoptions established by the settlement agreement.
  • More foster and adoptive parents were licensed by the state. Between July and December, DCF licensed 1367 new foster and adoptive homes, resulting in a net gain of 829 licensed homes in 2007. That is a substantial increase over 2005, when the state posted a net loss of 128 licensed homes.
  • DCF employees are better trained and have more manageable caseloads. During 2007, 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 85 percent of DCF caseworkers 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 better meeting children’s mental health needs. DCF continued to expand therapeutic, community-based treatment facilities in the state for children with mental and behavioral health needs. As a result, fewer children in DCF custody were placed out-of-state for residential mental health treatment during the second half of 2007.
  • DCF launched an improved child welfare practice model. DCF began implementation of a new and improved case-practice model designed to improve outcomes for children, including increased emphasis on more individualized planning for children and their families.

Despite progress in key areas, however, the report identifies major challenges to maintaining the pace of reform. Noting the uncertainty created by the recent departure of Commissioner Ryan — along with DCF’s Chief of Staff Lisa Eisenbud and Director of Policy and Planning Molly Armstrong — the report cautions that successful management of the transition to new leadership will be critical to the department’s continued success. Additionally, the report says, the state’s FY2009 budget must provide adequate resources for child welfare, and DCF’s new child welfare case-practice model and health initiatives must be implemented and fully staffed.

“This report sends the message loud and clear that the continued success of DCF hinges on Governor Corzine’s appointment of a new, permanent commissioner who is both capable of building on DCF’s accomplishments to this point and committed to getting the job done,” Lambiase said.

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 in New Jersey’s custody. Seven years later, after a previous settlement agreement with the state failed to yield improvements, Children’s Rights, along with 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. Today’s monitoring report is the third under the 2006 modified settlement agreement.

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