First Report From Expert Panel Shows New Jersey Children Still At Risk

The New Jersey Child Welfare Panel today issued its first report on the state’s progress in reforming its child welfare system as a result of the Children’s Rights class action lawsuit Charlie and Nadine H. v. McGreevey. The report by the group of experts, charged with monitoring New Jersey’s court-ordered child welfare reform shows pockets of progress, but reveals that New Jersey’s children are still not faring much better.

The report shows that reform is stymied because the state tried to impose a new bureaucracy on top of several old ones. The report calls for greater consolidation of the Division of Children and Families (DYFS) and the Division of Child Behavioral Health Services (DCBHS) under the Office of Children’s Services (OCS).

“Bureaucratic tinkering alone will never fix this fundamentally flawed child welfare system,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, the national child advocacy organization that filed the Charlie and Nadine H. lawsuit in 1999 and crafted a tough settlement agreement with New Jersey in 2003. “We have said all along that the current organizational structure is designed to fail children. Until there is a dramatic change in the structure, we don’t see how all the state’s good intentions can actually make children’s lives better.”

“New Jersey desperately needs a top-to-bottom transformation of its child welfare system,” stated Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights. “Unfortunately, we cannot expect to see dramatic improvements yet. We must not forget how broken the system was when we first sued and it has been only six and a half months since the final reform plan was adopted.”

Lowry and Lambiase did recognize some “beacons of hope” in the report’s findings that the state has done the following:
* Ended the practice of hospitals boarding abandoned, healthy babies and is now placing them with families.
* Reduced — and is on target to eliminate — its reliance on housing children in the Arthur Brisbane Child Treatment Center, a facility that has been unsafe for years.
* Hired more than 200 new caseworkers, although caseloads are not yet uniformly low enough that all caseworkers get to actually see their children regularly.
* Increased the reimbursement rate for relative caregivers and is slated to raise payments to all foster families to cover children’s basic physical needs.
* Appointed a new Medical Director to coordinate mental health and foster care services to meet special needs of children recovering from the trauma of abuse and neglect.
* Set up a hotline for receiving the public’s reports of abuse and neglect, although the state’s obsolete computer system prevents the data collected from being shared within the child welfare system.

“The state must take the recommendations in the report seriously and ensure that the major course change recommended in the panel’s report is made without delay,” said Lowry. “This settlement agreement is court-ordered and if the state does not comply, it could end up back in court.”

Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210