New Jersey child welfare reform effort sees only incremental progress

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STATE — While New Jersey’s child welfare agency has become a model system in several areas, the state’s foster care reform effort has plateaued and needs attention to speed the pace of reform, a national advocacy group said upon the release of the latest report reviewing the state’s progress.

The report, filed by an independent monitor, covers April through December 2013 and is the fourteenth since the 2006 modified settlement (MSA) of a class action brought against New Jersey by Children’s Rights, a national group working to reform failing child welfare systems, on behalf of more than 7,000 children in state care.

As of December 31, 2013, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) has met fewer than half of 53 performance measures. It has partially met seven.

STATE CHEERS REPORT SHOWING PARTIAL PROGRESS DESPITE INADEQUACIES

According to the independent monitor, DCF is, for the first time, hitting goal when it comes to investigating child maltreatment reports within an hour of the state hotline receiving them.

However, the state is completing fewer investigations within 60 days. DCF is to achieve this goal 98 percent of the time, but only accomplished it in 63 percent of its cases—a decline of nine percent since the monitor’s last report.

Children’s Rights noted the reform effort could be impacted by a change in DCF leadership; in January 2014, Lisa von Pier was appointed assistant commissioner of Child Protection and Permanency.

“We are looking to see how von Pier’s appointment may affect the speed of reform,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Lately New Jersey, which was fast becoming one of the premier child welfare systems in the nation, has seen far slower progress than its children deserve. It is time for the state to pick up the pace.”

Among the essential areas where DCF is failing to meet benchmarks:

• Repeat Maltreatment. The MSA requires that no more than 4.8 percent of children who are reunified with their parents will be the victims of further maltreatment within a year of going home. DCF’s current rate is 8.5 percent.

• Quality Case Planning. Under the MSA, 90 percent of case plans are required to be rated as “acceptable” by the State’s own internal review process. To date, only 41 percent of case plans meet these standards.

• Caseloads. During this reporting period, only 87 percent of intake caseworkers and adoptions caseworkers have appropriate caseloads, below the 95 percent benchmark.

• Family Engagement. Only 54 percent of children have had quarterly Family Team Meetings (FTMs), in which families and their supports meet to organize effective services. This is an improvement, but still far below the required 90 percent.

• Caseworker Visits with Parents. Only 74 percent of parents with a goal of being reunified with their children have had two face-to-face visits with caseworkers each month. The MSA requires 95 percent.

• Permanency for Long-Stayers. During 2013, only 36 percent of children in foster care for 25 months or longer had permanent homes before they turned 21 or by the end of the year, a figure that falls short by 11 percentage points.

The monitor noted that DCF has made improvements this monitoring period. In addition to starting maltreatment investigations more quickly, DCF is improving support for adolescents, ensuring that 95 percent of youth aging out of foster care have plans for housing. More children are living with kin—during the monitoring period, more than 50 percent of newly licensed families were relatives of children in care, which the monitor called “a notable achievement.” And the state continues to be strong when it comes to providing medical care and finding permanent homes for kids.

“Nobody can deny that DCF has, over time, seen considerable accomplishments,” said Lowry. “But the state must ramp up its efforts to achieve required reforms, and maintain them. New Jersey must ensure that these changes are institutionalized so the system can function better as a whole.”

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.


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