Report: NJ child welfare reforms on track

April 16, 2008 8:04:04 AM PDT
New Jersey has made major strides toward fixing its long-troubled child welfare system, increasing the number of adoptions and foster families and reducing the number of children sent to out-of-state facilities, according to a report released Wednesday. The ambitious years-long overhaul plan for the Department of Children and Families is gaining moral momentum as well as meeting its short-term goals, according to the report from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the court-appointed monitor of the agency's progress.

"While it is equally clear that the system's expectations for high quality, individualized and effective practice for every child and family it serves have not yet been realized," the report's author, Judith Meltzer, wrote, "there is increasingly a shared view that this goal is possible."

For years, critics said the state had failed to protect the abused and neglected children in its care, but the issue gained widespread public attention in 2003 when a boy was found dead in a Newark basement and then four severely malnourished boys were discovered in a Collingswood foster home.

Amid those high-profile tragedies, the state settled a lawsuit brought by Children's Rights Inc., a New York organization who said the Division on Youth and Family Services - now an arm of the Department of Children and Families - was not protecting the children in its charge.

The process remained contentious for the first few years, though, with court-appointed monitors finding that the culture of DYFS was not changing quickly enough and Children's Rights pressing for faster, more drastic reforms.

The tide began to turn in 2006 when former state Child Advocate Kevin Ryan was put in charge of the child welfare system and the state agreed to a new way to measure the reforms.

Three monitoring reports since then - including the new one, which covers the second half of 2007 - said the state met most of its goals.

For example, the state arranged 1,540 adoptions last year - 50 more than its goal. It continued to hire social workers, which means more manageable caseloads for those workers. It improved training for its workers and started using a new computer system to track cases, according to the report.

While the latest report was encouraging, it also warned that changes in leadership at the Department of Children and Families, or DCF, mean more challenges are ahead.

In January, Ryan announced he was leaving his post to work for MCJ Amelior Foundation, a charity that aims to help children in Newark and Africa. Some other high-ranking staff members also left recently.

A replacement for Ryan has not been named.

The monitor said it's a fragile time to be getting a new commissioner with reforms just beginning to take root.

The new leader also is a key concern for Children's Rights: "This report sends the message loud and clear that the continued success of DCF hinges on Governor Corzine's appointment of a new, permanent commissioner who is both capable of building on DCF's accomplishments to this point and committed to getting the job done," said Susan Lambiase, the organization's associate director.

Starting in January, the monitor will report not only on whether the state is taking the proper steps to fix the child-welfare system, but also on whether the children in the system are faring any better.