Watchdog sounds alarm on child welfare system’s handling of sex abuse cases

By: - February 9, 2023 7:08 am

A new report from acting State Comptroller Kevin D. Walsh's office slams the state Department of Children and Families for failing to assign caseworkers to certain cases of child sex abuse. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

The state department tasked with protecting children in New Jersey stopped investigating most cases of sexual abuse by non-caregivers and inappropriate sexual activity between children in early 2020, forcing the families of more than 120 victimized children to find services on their own, the state Comptroller’s Office said Tuesday in a new report.

In doing so, the Department of Children and Families violated its own policies, which require it to investigate child abuse allegations and take action to ensure the safety of children, the report found.

The report comes as the state is set to exit two decades of federal oversight that a judge ordered in response to a 1999 class-action lawsuit. The oversight was intended to reform a child welfare system that then was overburdened, mismanaged, and occasionally deadly. A court-appointed monitor in recent years has given the department glowing reviews.

Acting Comptroller Kevin Walsh described his latest findings as “troubling.”

“DCF made a significant change in its approach, then kept police, prosecutors, and other partners in the dark,” Walsh said in a statement. “The ramifications of DCF’s decisions were serious for children and the system as a whole.”

His office began investigating last February after receiving multiple complaints from law enforcement that the Department of Children and Families changed its intake and screening process without notifying them.

Investigators found that in early 2020, certain callers to the state child abuse hotline — those who reported sexual activity between children or sexual abuse by a non-caregiver, such as a relative, roommate, or household guest — were referred to community social service providers or the department’s behavioral health system, which is known as the Children’s System of Care.

Previously, the department responded to such cases by assigning a caseworker for investigation and/or assessment.

The change essentially left families to seek help on their own, with no DCF caseworkers to investigate, coordinate care, or follow up to ensure recovery, the report says.

DCF made a significant change in its approach, then kept police, prosecutors, and other partners in the dark. The ramifications of DCF’s decisions were serious for children and the system as a whole.

– Acting Comptroller Kevin D. Walsh

The change was made without notifying law enforcement or other community-based child protection professionals in mental health, victim advocacy, and substance abuse treatment who are tasked by law with responding to and preventing child abuse, investigators found.

Law enforcement last April gave the Department of Children and Families a list of more than 30 cases of non-caregiver child sexual abuse or child-on-child sexual activity that it didn’t assign caseworkers to, and a separate DCF internal analysis identified at least 123 children reported to the hotline over five months in 2021 who didn’t get caseworkers, according to the report.

DCF officials denied they changed their policies and told investigators that most cases of child-on-child sexual activity and sexual abuse by non-caregivers fall outside of their statutory authority, the report states.

But Walsh’s office found internal documents showing that the department “engineered the change in policy, was aware that law enforcement and others were concerned about the changes, and yet continued to implement the changes without communicating with law enforcement” or other child-protective professionals.

That violated DCF’s own directives requiring transparency, as well as state policy requiring DCF to help children involved in child-on-child inappropriate sexual activity and child sexual abuse by non-caregivers, the report found.

Walsh’s report recommends that the Department of Children and Families improve transparency by notifying all its community-based child-protective partners of policy changes and follow up with the 123 children whose hotline calls didn’t get assigned a caseworker to ensure they got treatment.

DCF officials told the Comptroller’s Office that they put safeguards in place in response to investigators’ findings, but the office hasn’t reviewed them to determine if they are adequate.

Falling through the cracks

DCF spokesman Jason Butkowski said the department “has taken and continues to take proactive steps to ensure that no child falls through the cracks.”

That includes a statewide work group, created last February, to analyze the needs of families affected by such abuse and a new $2.5 million fund established last month to ensure children who initiate or are victims of inappropriate child-on-child sexual activity, and their families, get treatment and other support, he added.

“While we continue to advance these services, DCF remains committed to ensuring that all children involved in child-on-child sexual abuse cases receive the support and services they require,” Christine Norbut Beyer, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, said in a statement.

Mary Coogan, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, is part of that work group.

Child-on-child sexual activity carries such a stigma that some families don’t report it or seek treatment, Coogan said. Such children can get lost in the system, too, because of how the statute defines an abuser — a parent or guardian, not a child, she added.

About 40% of people who sexually abuse or assault children under age 11 are children themselves, federal data shows. Focusing on a community-based treatment approach can help reduce a child’s involvement in the criminal justice system and their likelihood of getting removed from their home, Coogan said.

Of child-on-child sexual activity, Coogan said: “I think the work group has resolved the problem that was identified by the comptroller’s report.”

She added: “If people didn’t feel like they were kept in the loop, I’m just glad to see that that appears to be changing. And I hope that the collaboration evidenced in the work group continues, because that’s how we’re going to help kids and families.”

Roslyn Dashiell is executive director of PEI Kids, a Mercer County-based nonprofit that provides counseling to child sexual abuse victims.

She expressed concern about the report’s findings, saying the time after a child reveals sexual abuse is one of the most disruptive periods in a family’s existence, and an investigation is a “critical first step” for recovery.

“It can really derail the family’s ability to function, and most families have no idea how to begin navigating life following a disclosure of child sexual abuse,” Dashiell said. “Having structure, support, and the assurance that the matter will be fairly investigated and properly addressed by authorities is a critical first step for families who ultimately need help to heal, recover, and resume normal healthy functioning following such a disclosure.”

Dashiell noted the report comes “at an interesting time.”

In December, Gov. Phil Murphy announced the state expects to exit federal oversight of the state’s child welfare system this spring or summer. As part of the exit agreement, he signed a law capping caseloads to a maximum of 15 per caseworker and expanding transparency and accountability through annual public reporting on various performance metrics.

Murphy said then that the Department of Children and Families had made so much progress under federal oversight that “no child falls through the cracks and every case is treated with the time and attention it needs.”

Murphy spokeswoman Christi Peace said Wednesday the governor is reviewing the comptroller’s report and “understands the critical importance of this issue and the need to provide compassionate, comprehensive support to New Jersey children.”

“The administration will continue our work to make New Jersey’s response to allegations of abuse as effective and thorough as possible,” Peace said.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.