New Reports on New Jersey Foster Care Reforms Show Continued Success, But Also Raise Troubling Alarms

State Still Struggling to Engage Youth and Families and Adequately Support Adolescents

 
NEWARK, NJ — While New Jersey has continued improvement in several fundamental areas of its child welfare system and made some incremental progress in the remaining areas in which it has struggled, according to a new report on the sweeping court-ordered reform effort spurred by national advocacy group Children’s Rights the state is still falling short of several required goals, most notably in its support to teens aging out of foster care and caseworkers’ ability to frequently visit, engage with and provide adequate case plans for children in foster care.

Additionally, in light of recent the death of eight-year-old Christiana Glenn and the state Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) disclosure last week there had been an uninvestigated call to the state’s child abuse hotline only nine days before she died, Children’s Rights is calling on DCF for swift action. Specifically, the state must undertake a swift, thorough examination of what missteps may have occurred in this tragic case and identify what must be done to correct problems and ensure full accountability for the system.

According to today’s report (PDF), issued by an independent monitor issued appointed by the court to track reforms required under the 2006 federal court order, DCF has continued its positive performance in providing adequate medical and dental care to children in foster care. The agency is moving children more quickly into safe and stable homes with their parents or adoptive families. And DCF continues its success recruiting and retaining new foster and adoptive families.

However, while there has been some improvement with respect to engaging vulnerable families as part of daily case practice since the last monitoring period, the state is still far from where it should be. DCF is still not regularly holding family team meetings, which are designed to bring together the people who are children’s natural supports to ensure they get the care and services they need. Parents are still not given enough opportunities to visit with their children in foster care, and caseworkers need to see the children on their caseloads more frequently.

Additionally, because the state isn’t doing enough to support older youth preparing to leave foster care without a permanent family, far too many of these young people are facing grave outcomes — including unemployment, a lack of education, and trouble with law enforcement — according to a supplemental case record review included in today’s report.

“In spite of the shocking news about Christiana Glenn, it is evident that New Jersey’s foster care system has transformed from the system it was just a few years ago,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director for Children’s Rights. “But the state must be not only laser-focused on the challenges ahead, but also transparent and accountable, because so many vulnerable kids and teens are depending on its success.”

The monitor notes many key areas in which DCF continues to meet or exceed the requirements of the federal court order mandating reform:

  • Children are receiving necessary medical and dental care while in foster care. Every child entering state foster care now receives a full medical assessment before being placed in a foster home, and 86 percent of children over three years old receive semi-annual dentist visits. Additionally, 95 percent of children in foster care are current in their immunizations, and 94 percent receive appropriate follow-up care for needs identified by a full medical exam.
  • More children are living in appropriate family-like settings and are being placed with their brothers and sisters. According to today’s report, 86 percent of children in foster care were placed with families or in family-like settings, as opposed to large, institutional placements. Furthermore, the state continues to improve its ability to keep brothers and sisters together, doing so 77 percent of the time for sibling groups of two or three, and 34 percent of the time for groups larger than four.
  • DCF continues to successfully recruit and license new foster and adoptive families. DCF recruited more than 800 new foster and adoptive families in the second half of 2010, exceeding their 2010 target by 185 homes.
  • DCF continues to move children quickly to permanent, adoptive families if they cannot be successfully reunified with their parents. Of the children who were legally freed for adoption in 2009, 73 percent were adopted within a year. Additionally, in the last half of 2010 an average of 84 percent of children were adopted within nine months of being placed with their new families.

As noted above, while there has been no significant backsliding in the state’s efforts, the report calls attention to several areas to which DCF must continue to devote attention in order to meet requirements of the federal court order:

  • DCF must improve its ability to develop appropriate case plans for children in foster care. Case plans are critical to caseworkers’ ability to properly map out what children and their families need to succeed. DCF is developing case plans for only 56 percent of children entering foster care, a six percent improvement over the last monitoring period, but still well below the 95 percent requirement.
  • DCF needs to ensure more families receive family team meetings. While DCF is required to hold a family team meeting within 30 days of placing a child in foster care for 90 percent of all families, the state was able to provide a timely meeting for only 36 percent of families in the last quarter of 2010.
  • Children need to be visited by their caseworkers more frequently and given more opportunities to see their parents while in foster care. Frequent visitation between parents, children, and their caseworkers is essential to successful reunification efforts, and the state must immediately improve its efforts on this front. While 95 percent of children should be visited twice monthly by their caseworker at the beginning of their DYFSinvolvement, only 50 percent are getting those required visits. Just 13 percent of children saw their parents four times a month, with an additional 22 percent visiting with their families two or three times a month. And caseworkers visited less than 40 percent of parents the required two times per month.

In a supplemental case record review, the monitor examined the cases of more than 200 youth between the ages of 18 and 21 who had been in foster care for at least 60 days and exited state custody in the first six months of 2010. This review found the state’s efforts to serve and support adolescents after they turn 18 years old to be severely lacking in many areas:

  • Only 41 percent of youth aging out of foster care were enrolled in school when they left state custody.Only 10 percent of youth were participants in NJ Scholars, a program that helps pay for tuition and college-related costs for former foster youth. DCF must do a better job informing youth about this program and help youth take advantage of available federal and state funding for higher education before they leave foster care.
  • Nearly 70 percent of youth aging out were unemployed when they exited DYFS care. And for the youth who did have jobs — 78 percent were working part time. In this difficult economic climate, it is important thatDCF connect youth to career development and job training programs so they have a better chance at meaningful employment.
  • Twenty percent of youth aging out had current substance abuse problems when leaving foster care. Of those youth, more than 40 percent were never connected to any kind of help or treatment.
  • Only one LBGTQI youth in the monitor’s review was received support from a caseworker related to sexual orientation. The rest of the youth either found supports on their own, refused services offered, or never received support from DCF at all.

“The stakes are extremely high for these young people, and it is imperative DCF immediately begin to implement the monitor’s recommendations and identify why these youth aren’t faring better five years into this reform effort,” said Lambiase. “These are disturbing consequences, and it must be a priority.”

Issued by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, today’s monitoring report is ninth since the 2006 modified settlement of a class action brought against New Jersey by Children’s Rights and co-counsel on behalf of the more than 7,000 children in custody of the state child welfare system. It evaluates the progress made by the state over the six-month period between July 1 and December 31, 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.