State Needs to Ensure Key Interviews are Conducted and Critical Information is Obtained
NEWARK, NJ — While the vast majority of child abuse and neglect investigations in New Jersey have been thorough, comprehensive, and of good quality, the state is still struggling in several areas critical to ensuring children are protected from unsafe or inappropriate situations, according to a new case record review conducted as a part of the sweeping court-ordered reform effort spurred by Children’s Rights.
Today’s report (PDF) — issued by the court-appointed monitor charged with tracking the Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) reform efforts — lays out several areas DCF must improve to make sure child abuse and neglect investigations for children living at home are handled properly, such as ensuring investigators interview all the individuals and professionals critical to an investigation. For example, the case review found that investigators failed to interview child care providers in 65 percent of the instances when such an interview was needed.
“Over the last several years, New Jersey has placed a high priority on improving the safety of children who come in contact with the state child welfare system,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director for Children’s Rights. “However, this report reveals some serious concerns. For example, at times casework supervisors are approving investigations that are incomplete or not done properly.
“The state must swiftly ensure that supervisors are being appropriately trained to ensure investigations are completed, and that they are held accountable if they sign off on deficient investigations,” said Lambiase.
Today’s case record review, which examined 242 investigations from October 2010, highlights many positive results, including:
- The state is responding to allegations of child abuse and neglect quickly. Although still falling short of the 98 percent goal set by the court-ordered reform, 91 percent of the investigations reviewed showed child welfare workers initiated investigations within 24 hours of receiving a report of child abuse or neglect. By rapidly responding, workers are able to make sure children are not being left in situations where they may be subject to abuse or neglect.
- All of the investigations reviewed in this study completed an assessment of the immediate safety needs and issues for the potential child victim. Additionally, reviewers identified no concerns about the safety decisions made by investigators in 90 percent of investigations.
In addition to the positive results listed in this study, the independent monitor noted several areas that require additional improvement:
- It is not clear whether interviews of children are occurring properly. Reviewers were unable to determine if children were interviewed properly in 28 percent of the cases reviewed. Investigations should not be approved by a supervisor and closed unless it is clearly documented that case workers properly interviewed child victims outside the presence of the caretaker as required by state policy.
- Investigators often fail to contact individuals with critical information related to the case. Of the reviewed reports for which DCF was able to identify the source of the abuse or neglect allegation, investigators failed to attempt any contact with that source nearly 30 percent of the time. Furthermore, investigators did not attempt contact with those who might have information critical to the case, including child care providers (62 percent of the time), mental health professionals (35 percent of the time), family friends (38 percent of the time), and neighbors (48 percent of the time).
- Only about half of the families identified as “high risk” in the review were transferred for continuing services. An investigator may determine during the course of an investigation that a family could benefit from additional services, whether or not abuse or neglect has been found in the home. However, 49 percent of families identified as having a high risk of future harm to the children in their home were never transferred to receive ongoing support through DCF.
This review was not intended to address the missteps revealed after the tragic death of 8-year-old Christiana Glenn in May 2011, which raised serious concerns after a call to the state’s child abuse hotline only nine days before Christiana’s death went uninvestigated. However, Children’s Rights expects DCF will fulfill its promise to swiftly address recommendations set out in the state’s own internal review.
“Strengthening quality case practice can be a challenging process, but reforming any child welfare system is impossible without doing so,” said Lambiase. “New Jersey remains on the right path, but it must take today’s report as a reminder that there are still many children waiting on the promises of this reform effort.”
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.