By Mary Coogan, Vice President, ACNJ
At the federal court hearing in the Charlie and Nadine H. v. Murphy lawsuit on August 4th, the Honorable Stanley Chesler congratulated New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer and her staff, plaintiffs’ attorney Marcia Lowry, and federal court monitor and president of the Center for the Study of Social Policy Judith Meltzer and her staff, for their remarkable work in reforming New Jersey’s child welfare system. Judge Chesler said he has no doubt that the state will meet the remaining four performance measures required under the Sustainability and Exit Plan (SEP), which details the benchmarks the state must meet in order to end federal court oversight. At today’s hearing, the judge stated he is open to proposals to further modify or even dissolve the Court’s oversight, allowing the state to proceed on its own. The Court’s concern remains that the progress made does not dissolve because of a change in administration or state priorities, and again acknowledged the need for continued adequate funding by both the Legislature and Governor.
Ms. Meltzer presented her most recent report for the monitoring period from July 1 through December 31, 2020. This report, like the prior one, acknowledges the extraordinary challenges DCF faces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite those challenges, the report notes, “DCF continues to maintain progress already achieved as part of the Charlie and Nadine H. lawsuit and has taken additional steps to improve supports and services for the children, youth, and families of New Jersey.”
According to the Monitor’s report, the state has met 44 of the 48 measures in the SEP approved by Judge Chesler in November 2015 and has “sustained progress on most of the outcomes already achieved.” The outcomes and performance measures cover areas of child safety and well-being, service planning, permanency, staffing and caseloads. For a few measures, a decline in performance noted by the monitor was attributed to challenges caused by the pandemic. DCF may seek to exit federal monitoring by demonstrating it has achieved compliance with the SEP for a continuous period of at least 12 months. Click here to read prior monitoring reports.
The report recognized DCF’s efforts to set up virtual settings for meetings and visits that enabled the state to improve on some indicators related to family team meetings. All measures related to the placement of children in out-of-home care were maintained or exceeded. However, DCF is still struggling with the performance measures related to older youth ages 18-21, exiting care without being reunited with a parent, or placed with a relative, legal guardian or in an adoptive home. Lack of housing, or having employment or enrolled in or recently completed a training or an educational program are challenges likely to have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Three of the remaining four SEP Outcomes To Be Achieved, including the quality of case plans, the quality of family team meetings and services to support the transition of older youth, could not be measured because the state’s quality review process was suspended due to the pandemic. DCF is in the process of redesigning many of its quality improvement processes to integrate its Solution Based Casework approach with its Case Practice Model. The remaining Outcome To Be Achieved is that workers visit parents twice monthly when a child is in the state’s custody with a permanency goal of reunification.
Maintaining bonds and contact through visits between children in foster care and their workers, parents and siblings, an essential element of successful child welfare practice, continued to be challenging during this monitoring period as a result of the pandemic. In-person visits between parents and children living in foster care, as well as between siblings not residing together, began again during this monitoring period, though some visits still occurred virtually. The requirement that siblings not placed together visit each other at least once monthly was not met.
At the hearing, Ms. Meltzer reported that the progress made is a result of the efforts of steady and committed leadership and staff at DCF. She acknowledged the other initiatives of the department, including its efforts to prioritize race equity and promote equitable outcomes, prioritizing safety for both staff and families, efforts to limit critical and life-threatening incidents, efforts to increase placement with relatives and kin, as well as the department’s continued work to develop its primary prevention model, all despite addressing the challenges brought by the pandemic. Details of these efforts can be found in the Monitor’s report.
Commissioner Beyer acknowledged the efforts her staff and partners, the support of the Legislature and Governor, and former DCF staff and prior administrations who have contributed to making New Jersey’s child and family serving system one of the best in the nation. Today, DCF is focused on doing what is best for children and families and the desired outcomes will follow. Ms. Lowry acknowledged that DCF is currently one of the leading child welfare agencies in the country.
Clearly, it was a good day for those who work at the Department of Children and Families.