DCF Improves Case Planning for Foster Children, but Backslides in Crucial Area–Keeping Kids Safe From Repeat Abuse and Neglect

State Is Meeting Fewer Than Half of its Performance Goals, According to New Report

(New York) — While New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) recently made critical improvements in aspects of child welfare, the state is still struggling to meet its obligations in some core areas, such as keeping children safe from repeat maltreatment and finding them permanent homes, according to a progress report released by an independent federal court monitor.

Issued by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the monitoring report shows a marked improvement in several areas–particularly in the last several months, following the agency’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy:

*Timeliness of case planning improved. Initial case plans must be developed within 30 days of a child going to a new placement. By February and March 2013, DCF exceeded the 95 percent performance target for the first time, a marked improvement.
*Visitation increased between caseworkers and children. Caseworkers are to have at least two face-to-face visits per month with children during the first two months of an initial placement in state custody. DCF improved its performance from 53 percent to 84 percent during the most recent reporting period.
*Family meetings increased. DCF is still far from meeting the mark when it comes to holding Family Team Meetings, which involve parents, youth and appropriate formal and informal supports to help to organize effective services for the child and family. However the agency finally saw some upward movement in this area, which had been lacking for years.

“New Jersey has proved that where there is a will there is a way, and that DCF is able to raise performance standards in even the toughest of times,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “These accomplishments deserve recognition. But because they demonstrate the capabilities of the agency, they also show that there is no excuse for the state to be backsliding on keeping kids safe.”

The report noted that DCF is failing to meet its requirements when it comes to preventing repeat maltreatment of children whose families have received in-home services or who had been placed in foster care and then returned home; in fact, the state’s performance has declined in the most recent monitoring period. The report also calls attention to the rate at which children re-enter foster care within a year of returning to their parents, a figure that has remained flat from the previous monitoring period to the current one.

And while case planning is happening more quickly, the quality doesn’t always measure up. The report noted that while 90 percent of case plans are required to have an “acceptable” rating, quality case planning performance has decreased from 48 percent to 39 percent over the last two monitoring periods.

The report notes other areas where DCF is failing to make the grade. Overall, DCF’s ability to achieve permanency for children–either through reunification with birth parents, permanent relative care, adoption and/or guardianship–has remained the same or declined, and does not meet the required court-ordered levels. Of particular concern is finding permanent homes for children who have been in foster care for 25 months or more; DCF’s performance for the current monitoring period is 14 percentage points below the court-ordered target of 47 percent.

“The state should not be out of compliance on such important measures this far into the reform effort,” said Lowry. “The hallmark of a well-run child welfare system is finding children safe, loving, permanent homes as quickly as possible–including for those whose placement doesn’t come as easily. There is no reason DCF can’t maintain, or even improve upon, their successes in these critical areas while doing more effective case planning.”

The report, which covers July 2012 through March 2013, is the thirteenth 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 the care of the state. As of March 31, 2013, 21 of the 53 performance measures have been met and eight were partially met.

Children’s Rights filed the child welfare reform class action, now known as Charlie and Nadine H. v. Christie, and was joined in 2003 by co-counsel Drinker Biddle & Reath. In 2006, after a previous settlement agreement failed to yield positive results, Children’s Rights reached a new agreement with state officials, mandating sweeping reforms and resulting in DCF’s creation.