New NJ Leadership Maintains Improvements in Foster Care — Must Now Focus on Family Involvement in Cases

NEWARK, NJ — The new leadership team at New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families has maintained the agency’s progress improving protection and care for thousands of abused and neglected children statewide, says a new progress report on an ongoing effort spurred by Children’s Rights to reform the state’s once-troubled child welfare system — and now must focus its attention on giving families involved in the system a greater voice in the handling of their cases.

According to today’s report (PDF), DCF is ensuring most children in state custody are living with relatives or foster families, and not in shelters or big facilities. More children are getting the necessary medical and dental care they need to stay healthy while in foster care. And for the vast majority of children who cannot be reunified with their parents, DCF finalizes adoptions within nine months of children’s placement with adoptive families.

But the state is still struggling to ensure children are frequently visited by their caseworkers and that they get to see their parents as often as required. Additionally, caseworkers are not routinely holding family team meetings — a key aspect of a statewide case practice model aimed at bringing together children’s family, friends, and service providers to ensure that they receive appropriate care and services while in foster care.

“DCF’s new leadership is continuing to keep kids safe in foster care, but families are still too often being left out of the process,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director for Children’s Rights. “As New Jersey works to maintain the progress it has achieved, it is critical to the reform effort that children are visited often and families have a greater role in decisions about their children’s future.”

Today’s report, issued by the independent monitor appointed by the federal court to track the state’s progress, is the eighth since the 2006 modified settlement of a class action brought against New Jersey by Children’s Rights and co-counsel on behalf of all children in custody of the state child welfare system. The monitor notes that DCF continues to meet or exceed expectations in many key areas — and in some cases hits the final targets required by the settlement agreement:

  • Children in foster care are more likely to be placed with families, rather than in institutions. New Jersey is now serving 86 percent of foster youth in homes with relatives or foster families. DCF has also ended the dangerous use of shelters as a placement for younger children; not a single child under 13 was placed in a shelter during this monitoring period.
  • DCF is moving children more quickly out of foster care and into safe, permanent homes with their parents or adoptive families. DCF is on track to meet the requirement to find permanency for at least 50 percent of children within the first year of entering foster care — which includes reunifying kids with their birth parents or being adopted. DCF has also shown improvement in finding permanent homes and connections for older youth who have been in state custody the longest.
  • The vast majority of children in foster care are receiving adequate medical and dental care. By the end of this monitoring period, 93 percent of children in state custody were up to date with their immunizations and 90 percent received necessary follow-up care after their initial medical exam. Additionally, 85 percent of children over the age of three who have been in foster care for at least six months received a semi-annual dental exam.
  • Caseworkers still have manageable caseloads and are receiving necessary training to prepare them for working with kids and families. Newly hired caseworkers are getting the critical training necessary before being sent out into the field. Additionally, New Jersey is still meeting or came close to meeting all caseload targets, despite a recent spike in calls to the child abuse and neglect hotline.

While DCF has done a good job training its workforce on new case practice policies and procedures, today’s progress report shows that caseworkers are not necessarily translating that training to better practice in the field with kids and families.

The monitor has noted that DCF’s new administration — through its leadership in new Commissioner Allison Blake — has begun to take steps to address these challenging areas, and that DCF must “be more aggressive in developing additional strategies” so that the agency’s efforts “produces the desired outcomes for children and families.” Among the areas where improvements are needed:

  • Children are still not getting enough visits with caseworkers or their parents. Only 43 percent of children are being visited twice per month at the beginning of their DCF involvement, with at least one of those visits taking place in their foster placement. Additionally, while 88 percent of children received at least one visit per month, this does not meet the state’s commitment of 98 percent for this monitoring period. Frequent visitation with parents is critical to successful reunification efforts, but the state was only able to ensure 14 percent of children received weekly visits with their parents. While the state has done a better job placing children with their brothers and sisters in foster care, DCF still cannot accurately report on visits between siblings not living together.
  • Caseworkers are not holding enough family team meetings. Only 21 percent of families living in areas where case practice training has been fully implemented participated in family team meetings within 30 days of their children’s placement into state custody — falling far short of the required 75 percent statewide and only a marginal improvement from last monitoring period. The monitor reports that DCF has recognized the critical importance of implementing family team meetings and began a diagnostic process in September 2010 to identify the reasons why performance in this area has been lacking. The state is scheduled to report the results of this effort in the next monitoring period.
  • The state is still falling short in developing case plans for children in foster care. Case plans identify what a child and family need to succeed and map out how a caseworker can help them achieve it. While the state should be developing case plans within 30 days for 95 percent of all children entering state custody, only 50 percent of children had plans developed by June 2010. Additionally, among families who did have case plans in place, only 69 percent received the appropriate six-month follow-up from their caseworkers to ensure the plans still reflected the families’ current needs.
  • Critical safety assessments are not being completed before closing cases. Once DCF has decided a family no longer needs state intervention or supervision, it is vitally important that DCF fully assess how safe children are in their homes before closing the case and ending the state’s involvement with the family. However, only 31 percent of families were adequately assessed for safety and risk of abuse within 30 days of the closing of their cases.

An additional area of concern noted by the monitor is that DCF still does not have a qualitative review process in place — a requirement that was originally due well over a year ago. Without the ability to internally review the quality of care and services children are receiving, there is no way to know whether the few families who are getting case plans and participating in family team meetings are actually benefiting from those services.

Issued by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, today’s report evaluates the progress made by the state over the six-month period between January 1 and June 30, 2010.

Children’s Rights filed the child welfare reform class action known as Charlie and Nadine H. v. Christie in 1999, with co-counsel Drinker Biddle & Reath. In 2006, after a previous settlement agreement failed to yield positive results, Children’s Rights and reached a new agreement with state officials, mandating sweeping reforms and resulting inDCF’s creation.

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.