Better Results for Children as New Jersey Completes First Phase of Child Welfare Reforms

NEWARK, NJ — New Jersey has successfully completed the first phase of a massive child welfare reform effort mandated by the settlement of a federal class action brought by Children’s Rights, according to a report released today by the independent monitor in the case — and the state’s abused and neglected children and at-risk families are getting significantly better care and services as a result.

Operating under court order, the state has thoroughly reformed the structure, management, and workforce of its child welfare system, creating the cabinet-level Department of Children and Families (DCF), hiring hundreds of additional caseworkers, reducing caseloads for workers throughout the state, and implementing more comprehensive training for its staff. With the help of national and local child welfare experts, DCF has also developed and is implementing a new statewide model of child welfare practice that emphasizes keeping children with families, preferably their own, and engaging children and families in critical decision-making.

At the same time, the (PDF) says, the state has substantially increased the number of children adopted out of foster care annually and expanded its pool of available foster families, reduced the number of children it places in foster homes out of state and in shelters rather than with foster families, and expanded health care, family preservation, and other services for children in need.

Although the report notes some areas of concern as the state moves into the second phase of the reform effort — during which the emphasis of the court-ordered benchmarks for improvement shifts even more heavily toward ensuring better outcomes for children and families — it commends Governor Jon S. Corzine and DCF’s leadership for their continued commitment to progress, and calls on state officials to remain focused as they confront the challenges ahead.

“New Jersey’s child welfare system is being transformed by this court-ordered reform effort in ways that are producing increasingly clear and significant improvements in the lives of the state’s abused and neglected children and their families,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights. “Now DCF must not only maintain the reforms it has made, but also translate them into still better results for the kids and families who depend on it, and Children’s Rights will continue to monitor its progress closely.”

Today’s report, the fifth issued by the independent monitor appointed by the court to track the reforms since the 2006 settlement agreement requiring their implementation, evaluates DCF’s performance from July 1 to December 31, 2008, and summarizes the agency’s overall performance over the past two and a half years. Among the measures ofDCF’s progress:

Amid the substantial progress, the report notes some challenges that remain as New Jersey enters the second phase of the reforms, which began in January 2009. DCF is still placing some children inappropriately in shelters rather than foster homes, including five children under the age of 13 for whom such placements are completely prohibited under the court order. Of the 421 children over 13 who were placed in shelters in the second half of 2008, 46 were placed there inappropriately, according to today’s report. Additionally, despite an increase in the total number of foster and adoptive homes licensed, the state fell short of the requirement to complete the licensing process within 150 days.

Children’s Rights filed the class action now known as Charlie and Nadine H. v. Corzine in 1999 on behalf of the more than 11,000 children dependent upon New Jersey’s child welfare system. In 2006, after a previous settlement agreement with the state failed to yield improvements, Children’s Rights and 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.

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

Higher Marks for Child Welfare System (The Star-Ledger, 04/28/2009)

Child Welfare Agency Progressing, Report Says (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 04/28/2009)