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Twenty-two years after advocates filed a sweeping class-action lawsuit to reform New Jersey’s overburdened, mismanaged, and occasionally deadly child welfare system, a court-appointed monitor Wednesday reported that the system has improved so much it’s now regarded as a model nationally.
The state Department of Children and Families (DCF) met 44 of its 48 performance targets, according to a progress report from monitor Judith Meltzer, president of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.
The lawsuit, filed in 1999 on behalf of thousands of children, accused the state of failing to protect children in the welfare system, and of placing them — especially adolescent and special-needs children — in homes where they were abused, neglected, or even killed.
The report released Wednesday listed performance targets the DCF met, including making sure 95% of DCF offices maintain a 5 to 1 worker to supervisor ratio; completing at least 95% of all investigations into alleged child abuse and neglect within 90 days; and ensuring 90% of intake workers have no more than 12 open cases and no more than eight new case assignments per month.
Three areas where DCF fell short were the rates of children exiting foster care to permanency within 12 to 24 months; the rates of older youth securing permanent housing and employment as they exit foster care; and the percentage of families who have in-person meetings with their caseworker at least twice a week when the goal is reunification.
The findings were revealed during a virtual hearing Wednesday before U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Chesler.
A 2006 consent decree required ongoing oversight by a monitor and ordered reforms enforceable in federal court. Progress reports are required roughly every six months, and Wednesday’s update focused on July through December 2020.
Meltzer said the coronavirus pandemic prevented her center from measuring some of DCF’s performance targets.
Chesler cheered the findings, saying the Legislature’s steady support for DCF has helped safeguard progress for the past two decades. He said he’d consider dissolving the consent decree — if the parties involved propose strategies to ensure the reforms don’t erode once court oversight ends.
“Continued funding for the future is always a concern,” the judge said. “There is a tremendous tendency for governments, organizations, budget-makers, decision-makers to respond to the crisis du jour and to shift funds to deal with the crisis du jour. That that has not occurred with regard to DCF is indeed remarkable.”
Marcia Lowry, the attorney who filed the original lawsuit on behalf of 15 named children and 6,000 unnamed “others similarly situated,” echoed the judge’s enthusiasm.
“This is a system that was in chaos when this litigation commenced. It has moved forward in an amazing way,” said Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, a New York-based nonprofit. “The pandemic has been a test of this system and its ability to adapt … We are very pleased with the report.”
DCF now serves 3,700 children in foster care and 31,000 families and children in in-home child protective care, according to the monitor’s report.
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