The law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy Tuesday expands oversight of N.J.’s child welfare system and caps caseloads for social workers handling child abuse and neglect cases. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)
Gov. Phil Murphy signed a new law Tuesday that expands oversight of the state’s child welfare system and caps the number of child abuse and neglect cases assigned to social workers, a move intended to ensure no cases fall through the cracks.
The legislation comes 23 years after advocates filed a sweeping class-action lawsuit to reform a system that at the time was overburdened, mismanaged, and occasionally deadly. The lawsuit led a judge to order federal oversight.
After years of reforms and progress, state officials last March negotiated an exit from the oversight, with this week’s law-signing a “key part” of increasing accountability, Murphy’s office said.
Under the terms of the exit agreement, New Jersey had to codify child protection caseload limits and ensure transparency and accountability through annual public reporting on performance metrics.
The new law expands the role of the New Jersey child abuse task force’s staffing and oversight review subcommittee, which is tasked with reviewing state child welfare data on staffing and case outcomes and publicly reporting their findings annually.
The law also limits each state Department of Children and Families case worker to 15 cases maximum. That’s a third of what some case workers handled when the class-action lawsuit was filed in 1999 on behalf of thousands of children who were placed in homes where they were abused, neglected, or even killed.
If the subcommittee finds workers handling more than 15 cases a day for two consecutive months, the new law requires a corrective plan of action to be put in place.
New Jersey has made so much progress since federal oversight was first ordered in 2003 that it has been lauded as a national model. It now has the lowest out-of-home placement rate nationally, the fourth lowest maltreatment rate, and the seventh lowest number of moves children experience while in foster care, according to Murphy’s office.
Staff turnover also has decreased. The department employs about 6,600 people, according to Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer.
The state’s final exit from federal oversight is expected in late spring or early summer.
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