New Report Shows Improvements and Persistent Problems with New Jersey’s Child Welfare System

A court-ordered report of New Jersey’s child welfare system released last week declared that the state has made “significant progress” in its work with troubled families and children in foster care.

“I am very pleased to report that the state continued to make significant progress toward meeting the requirements of the Charlie and Nadine H court order,” said Judith Meltzer, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy and court-appointed monitor, in testimony given in a U.S. District Court hearing in Newark.

New Jersey’s child welfare system, once regarded as one of the nation’s worst, continues to work towards improvements under federally mandated monitoring after a 2003 lawsuit against the state. The recently released report outlines the Department of Children and Families’ actions towards overcoming significant detriments and achieving progress goals.

New Jersey has historically struggled to successfully manage an effective child welfare system. After multiple cases of neglect and abuse within adoption families and foster youth emerged, a 2003 lawsuit filed by Children’s Rights, a national advocacy group whose goal is to reform failing child welfare systems, sparked reform across the state.

The case, Charlie and Nadine H. v. Christie, revealed that New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services faced severe systemic impairments that endangered the safety of over 60,000 children.

The Office of Children’s Services in the Department of Human Services acknowledged that New Jersey had been experiencing “historically high numbers of child abuse and neglect investigations,” according to a manual released by the state.

The resulting lawsuit mandated the state go through an extensive review of the Division of Youth and Family Services’ practices in out-of-home placements, services to children in foster care, caseworker training and accountability.

A separate children’s agency created in July 2006 led to court oversight that continues today. The Center for the Study of Social Policy, a research agency focused on promoting public policies that protect children from poverty and abuse, has served as the monitor of the state’s child welfare records since 2006. In 2015 the Center helped facilitate a revision to the court-ordered agreement. The report released last week is the first report under the new revisions and addresses performance from January to December 2015. Subsequent reports will monitor performance every six months.

The new Sustainability and Exit Plan requires the state to adhere to various organizational and structural requirements designed to improve the welfare system’s overall operations.

“The structure of the Sustainability and Exit Plan intentionally recognizes and accounts for the significant progress the state has made since the lawsuit began, while at the same time mandates a continued focus on those areas where additional improvements are needed,” Meltzer said.

The main concern of the report outlined a rising number of children who are abused within a year of leaving foster care. Other challenges address the state’s poor quality of case plans for outlining family problems and low numbers of reuniting children with their parents. Meltzer told the court that the department had met nine of the 36 “to be achieved” performance measures for the past year and maintained performance on outcomes previously achieved. In addition, five other measures were achieved for the six-month period between July and December 2015.

One of the most substantial improvements is the department’s work addressing older youth. The state met the requirements for two standards this monitoring period, including completing independent living assessments for youth and providing acceptable quality case management for older youth.

The Department of Children and Families’ performance in meeting permanency outcomes for children also improved. Data for the most recent calendar year showed the department’s performance meets the required level for achieving permanency within 12 months and partially meets the required level for permanency within 48 months.

“This is terrific. Going forward, the Department of Children and Families still needs to meet the remaining three performance measures in this area and further work is also needed to fully implement core practices,” Meltzer said.

Overall, 53 percent of the state’s plans met quality standards, falling short of the 80 percent goal, according to the report.

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