New Jersey Must Maintain Focus on Child Welfare Reform to Continue Important Progress for Abused and Neglected Kids

NEWARK, NJ — The New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) continues to produce vital improvements in the care and protection it provides abused and neglected children, according to a new progress report released today on a long-running effort to reform the state’s once-failing child welfare system under a federal court order secured by Children’s Rights.

Today, Children’s Rights advocates called on incoming Governor-Elect Chris Christie to uphold the state’s commitment to completing the required reforms.

The new report (PDF), issued by an independent monitor appointed by the federal court, is the first since the state successfully completed the first phase of the reform effort at the end of 2008. It highlights several critical areas in which DCF has maintained good results, including dramatic improvements in children’s safety both in foster care and at home, steady increases in adoptions and the number of kids placed in foster families rather than group homes and institutions, reductions in caseloads for child welfare workers, and improvements in training for caseworkers and supervisors.

But the report also raises some potential concerns about DCF’s implementation of reforms required in the second phase of the massive effort — and makes it clear that, in some areas, more focused attention is needed right away to come into compliance with upcoming mandates of the federal court order and improve the results DCF produces for the children and families who depend on it.

“New Jersey has dramatically improved a child welfare system that many once considered irreparable, and we call on the incoming administration to maintain the support, resources, and collaborative spirit that have enabled this historic reform effort’s success,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Although many challenges remain, we look forward to working with Governor-Elect Christie to ensure DCF’s continued progress toward meeting the requirements of the federal court order and the needs of New Jersey’s abused and neglected kids.”

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.

Today’s report, which evaluates DCF’s performance from January 1 through June 30, 2009, commends DCF for maintaining critical improvements in several key areas:

  • Children are safer. New Jersey has reduced the rate of abuse and neglect suffered by children in state foster care from a high of 11.4 percent in 2003 to 0.15 percent through the calendar year 2008, well below the maximum allowable rate of 0.49 percent mandated by the 2006 settlement agreement. Additionally, only 5.5 percent of children who came to the attention of the child welfare system in 2008 but remained with their families suffered repeated incidents of abuse or neglect — lower than the settlement’s maximum allowable rate of 7.2 percent and an accomplishment Children’s Rights officials attribute in part to expanded services made available by the state to vulnerable families under the settlement agreement.
  • Children in foster care are being kept together with their siblings and placed in family-like settings. New Jersey has surpassed court-ordered targets for both placing siblings together in foster care and placing children with foster families rather than in group homes or institutions — improvements made possible by the state’s fulfillment of the settlement agreement’s requirements for licensing increased numbers of foster homes.
  • Fewer children in foster care are being placed out of state. In March 2006, 329 children were living in out-of-state foster homes. By July 2009, this number had been cut to 66.
  • Child welfare workers are better-trained and carrying lighter caseloads. DCF continues to meet and comply with the settlement agreement’s caseworker and supervisor training requirements and have brought caseloads for child welfare workers down to acceptable levels.

But the report also calls attention to several areas to which DCF must devote attention immediately to keep up with the requirements of the federal court order:

  • DCF must improve health care for children in foster care. New Child Health Units have produced improvements in health care for kids in out-of-home placements, but DCF still failed to meet most of the benchmarks for reform required in this area by June 2009. Children’s Rights officials say the improvements noted in today’s report illustrate the critical importance of fully staffing the Child Health Units and completing the court-ordered health care reforms.
  • DCF must improve visitation for children in foster care, including face-to-face visits from the caseworkers responsible for monitoring kids’ safety and well-being in foster care and visits between children and their parents and siblings — critical to improving the chances that they can be reunified safely and successfully.
  • DCF must better engage vulnerable children and families in critical decision-making about their future.Family Team Meetings aimed at pairing children and families with child welfare workers and others to work toward better outcomes appear not to have become a routine part of DCF’s practice, according to today’s report. DCF must fully implement these meetings in order to realize the goals of the new statewide model of child welfare practice mandated by the 2006 settlement agreement, which emphasizes the importance of keeping children with families — preferably their own — and engaging children and their families in critical decision-making.

“Today’s report highlights many significant improvements that illustrate how far the New Jersey child welfare system has come, but also several shortcomings that remind us how far it still needs to go,” said Lowry. “Children’s Rights will continue to work with New Jersey’s leaders to overcome the obstacles that lie ahead, and we will continue to holdDCF to the commitment it has made to provide abused and neglected children with the care and protection that is their right.”

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 Press

Federal monitors give largely positive marks for N.J. child welfare (Star Ledger, Jan. 7, 2010)