New Jersey Foster Care Reform Efforts Face Challenges, Report Shows

(New York) — While New Jersey made some progress in the first half of this year, its Department of Children and Families (DCF) is still falling short in several critical areas of child welfare, according to a new report on the sweeping court-ordered reform effort spurred by national advocacy group Children’s Rights.

“While DCF clearly is focused on making its system work better for the children and families who depend on it, some reforms simply are not happening quickly enough,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director for Children’s Rights. “The state must redouble its efforts to ensure that vulnerable kids receive the best attention and services possible.”

Today’s report, issued by an independent monitor appointed by the court to track the state’s reform efforts, does show continued success– such as building a network of available foster homes, dramatically reducing the number of children sent to other states for mental and behavioral health treatment, and improving the overall level of child healthcare being provided by the state.

While these improvements are important, progress in many of the problem areas outlined in previous monitoring reports is far too slow. The monitor notes key areas where DCF must ramp up its efforts, including:

  • Children are not getting enough visits with their caseworkers and parents. Only 58 percent of children in foster care were visited by their caseworkers twice per month during their first two months in state care. Furthermore, only 38 percent of parents had weekly visits with their children. While this is an improvement over the prior six months, the monitor expressed deep concern over the state’s failure in this area given the importance of regular caseworker and parent visits with children in care.
  • Case plans for children in care are not being completed on time. Case planning is critical to caseworkers’ ability to properly map out what children and their families need to succeed. New Jersey’s own case practice model calls for case plans to be created within 30 days of a child entering care, but this only occurred in 61 percent of all new cases. The state continues to show steady improvement in this category, but is still well short of its 95 percent goal.
  • Safety and risk assessments are not being completed before cases close. It is critical that DCF fully assesses how safe children are in their homes before closing a case and ending the state’s involvement. Only 25 percent of families were adequately assessed for safety and 35 percent of families were adequately assessed for risk of harm within 30 days of closing the case. This performance falls far short of the state’s 98 percent goal.

Despite the significant work left to be done, the monitor notes many key areas in which DCF continues to meet or exceed the expectations of the federal court order mandating reform:

  • New foster home recruitment and licensing continues to surpass goals. In this monitoring period DCFrecruited and licensed 750 new foster homes — exceeding its target by nearly 50 homes. Because of the state’s strong performance in this area, New Jersey now has capacity for more than double the number of children currently in care.
  • Children are being placed in family or family-like settings. Nearly 90 percent of all children in foster care are living with families, or in family-like settings. This improved practice helps ensure that children are not inappropriately placed in institutions or shelters. Additionally, DCF has remained committed to keeping children with mental and behavioral challenges closer to their homes. Only nine children receiving treatment had been placed out of state as of July 1, 2011.
  • DCF has fully implemented a robust qualitative review process. During 2011, DCF successfully implemented a statewide qualitative case review process that will enable the state to assess the quality of care and services that it provides to children and families. DCF will now be able to use the case review findings to identify strengths and promote practice improvements on qualitative issues.

“New Jersey’s success in many vital areas of the federal court order shows that the state can become a national leader for child welfare reform,” said Jodi Miller, staff attorney for Children’s Rights. “We remain cautiously optimistic that DCF will resolve the ongoing problems in its system while sustaining the many improvements already made. The children and families of New Jersey deserve nothing less than the state’s very best from here on out.”

Issued by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, today’s monitoring report is the tenth 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 custody of the state child welfare system. It evaluates the progress made by the state over the six-month period between January 1 and June 30, 2011.

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.

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.

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