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 (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:

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:

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.