NEW JERSEY - While New Jersey has made progress in improving its child protection system, it would be ill‐advised to relax court‐ordered standards aimed at safeguarding children from abuse and neglect, according to a new report from Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
Using data from the federal court-appointed monitor’s reports issued over the past few years, the report found long-term progress in some important areas, including providing children in foster care with consistent access to health care, including dental, and placing children in family foster care settings, among other areas.
However, the state still falls short in critical areas of case handling, which are necessary to protect children from harm and safely reunify families. This includes holding meaningful meetings with families and others involved in a child’s life and developing effective plans to help families address the issues that led to a child being placed in foster care.
After the monitor presented the report to the federal judge overseeing the case, Children and Families Commissioner Alison Blake asserted that it is time to review and relax certain standards set by a 2006 settlement agreement.
While reviewing the standards may be appropriate, relaxing any requirements regarding case handling, such as holding “family team meetings” with parents whose children are in foster care, could result in setbacks – and put more children in harm’s way.
“The state’s progress on many fronts is encouraging and should be commended,” Zalkind said. “Still, the core measures of case handling – those issues that directly impact child safety and family reunification – have been slow to change. It is critical that the state remain committed to meeting the goals of the settlement agreement. State officials should also engage in a public discussion of how we can work together to accomplish that.”
Zalkind also noted that some standards should be strengthened – not weakened.
“Any review of standards should include a look at the requirements for visitation between parents and children in foster care,” Zalkind said. “The current standard sets too low a bar.”
That standard requires 60 percent of children in foster care to visit weekly with their parents and has no special requirements for younger children who, research shows, need more frequent visitation. Consistent, quality visitation is a key piece to safely reunifying families.
The monitor’s reports also documents a concerning increase in the number of children being re‐abused after coming to the attention of DCPP. This includes a troubling 8.5 percent of children who are reunited with their parents and abused again within a year of going home. The settlement requires this rate to be no more than 4.8 percent.
ACNJ’s report focused on 32 key measures that directly impact child safety and children’s chances of growing up in safe, permanent homes. ACNJ chose these measures because they are at the core of ensuring that children are protected from abuse and neglect and that families are strengthened so that children can remain safely at home.
In these 32 areas, the state fully met the settlement standards in just eight areas:
- Conducting safety and risk assessments during the initial investigation
- Creating timely case plans initially
- Modifying those plans at appropriate points in a child’s case
- Placing children in appropriate foster care settings
- Placing children with foster and relative families
- Keeping children in foster care safe from abuse and neglect
- Ensuring that children who are legally free for adoption are actually adopted
- Adoptions finalized within nine months.
New Jersey got close to achieving three of these 32 standards, including completing safety and risk assessments prior to closing a case, caseworkers visiting monthly with children in foster care after the first two months in placement and discharging children in foster care to a permanent home within 13 to 24 months of the initial placement.
In 21 other critical areas, the state failed to reach its goals, especially in the area of engaging families in solving problems and keeping children safe while under in‐home supervision or after being returned to their families from foster care. These are critical areas because they are the foundation for keeping children safely together with their families.
“We felt it was important to paint a more concise picture of the state’s progress in its handling of cases of child abuse and neglect and to identify longer-term trends,” Zalkind said. “We will use this information to inform policymakers, legislators and other advocates so they can become part of a meaningful discussion of how to achieve the paramount goal of ensuring all children are safe from harm.”
To read the full report, go to www.acnj.org