Report Shows Little Progress For New Jersey Child Welfare Reform in Recent Months

(New York, NY) –New Jersey, which in the past few years has been known for significantly improving its child welfare system, made little progress during the second half of 2011, according to a report released today by an independent court monitor.

The progress report, an update on court-ordered reforms that were spurred by the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, describes the state’s failure to implement key aspects of a sweeping Case Practice Model. The model centers on proactive engagement with children and families to ensure they receive individualized, meaningful services.

However, the report also highlights areas where the Department of Children and Families (DCF) maintains strong performance, such as providing children with timely access to health care; placing children in family-like settings as opposed to large institutional living facilities; and recruiting and licensing foster homes.

“New Jersey has shown it is capable of producing substantial change, so it is alarming that several years into the reform effort DCF is still failing at engaging with vulnerable families,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of Children’s Rights. “It is critical for caseworkers to make coordinated efforts to achieve safety, permanency and well-being for the whole family.”

The report notes a lack of progress in several areas:

Caseworkers are failing to conduct family team meetings. DCF is required to hold family team meetings under the supervision of a caseworker to build a plan that addresses the child’s needs. The court order requires that these meetings must be held within 30 days of a child entering care and at least once per quarter thereafter for 90 percent of families. During the second half of the year, up to 64 percent of families convened within the first 30 days. In December 2011, the last month for which data was collected, quarterly family meetings were held only 37 percent of the time.
Children are still not receiving required caseworker visits. Data show that from July through December 2011, up to 65 percent of children had the mandatory twice-monthly visits with caseworkers during the first two months of a placement, far below the 95 percent requirement.
Case plans are not always completed in a timely manner. Workers are required to build case plans that match the family with services and determine the best possible outcomes for children, be it adoption or reunification. From July through December 2011, up to 70 percent of case plans were completed within the required 30 days. Workers are also required to regularly adjust case plans; during the period, up to 74 percent of case plans were modified within the six month timeframe, missing the 95 percent requirement.
In addition, caseloads are on the rise. In previous monitoring periods, DCF has generally kept caseloads at sustainable levels. However, the recent “rise in caseloads in many offices in the state is a cause for concern,” according to the report. “Intake” workers assigned to investigate initial reports of potential abuse or neglect consistently struggle to meet caseload standards. Only 76 percent were able to stay within case limits during July through December 2011, down 8 percent from the previous period.

“DCF cannot meet its court-ordered obligations if it does not keep caseloads at required levels,” said Lowry. “The state simply must address its remaining shortcomings.”

Children’s Rights filed the child welfare reform class action now 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 co-counsel reached a new agreement with state officials, mandating sweeping reforms and resulting in DCF’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 the New Jersey Class Action Page.