Thursday, December 15, 2011

N.J. DYFS is still failing to help troubled families under their supervision, report says

TRENTON — New Jersey’s child welfare system has improved five years into an intense and expensive overhaul, but caseloads are rising again and workers still need to do a better job helping troubled families under their supervision, a report released yesterday concludes.

The Division of Youth and Family Services was praised for providing extensive training to its workforce, licensing a plentiful supply of foster homes and providing timely medical care for abused and neglected children, according to the 10th report issued by Judith Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

But it also noted the caseloads of workers who investigate claims of abuse and neglect have been rising for the past 18 months. Controlling skyrocketing caseloads was one of the most critical changes made in the earliest stages of the reform plan.

The monitoring agency, which is in charge of evaluating a continuing series of court-ordered improvements at DYFS, also cited the need to improved the quality of its investigations.

"We are seeing slow, but steady progress," said Kristen Weber, a senior associate for CSSP.

Meltzer, in the 202-page report, also commended the state for finding mental health treatment facilities in New Jersey for all but a record-low nine children. It said the Department of Children and Families, DYFS’ parent agency, met 24 court-ordered objectives and missed 25 others.

Allison Blake, Children and Families commissioner since 2010, said the report was "fair" and was pleased her department sees "significant progress everyday" in the welfare of the children.

The mixed review comes as the DYFS is fends off public criticism that it had failed to detect trouble in the home of Tierra Morgan-Glover, the 2-year-old Ocean County girl allegedly killed by her father last month.

Over the past year, DYFS investigated Morgan and Tierra’s mother, Imani Benton, on four separate occasions, the last one as late as Nov. 10 — less than two weeks before Tierra’s body, still strapped in her car seat, was found in a stream in Shark River Park in Wall. At issue is whether DYFS took into account Benton’s claims that she was a victim of domestic abuse and whether that put the toddler in danger.

The findings announced yesterday were from 2011 data collected through June. Earlier this month, Blake said her agency will review some guidelines when dealings with claims of abuse, in the wake of Morgan-Glover’s death. She said yesterday the results of that review may be announced in the next few weeks.

Children’s Rights, a national advocacy group whose lawsuit prompted a $1 billion overhaul of New Jersey’s child-welfare system in 2003, offered tempered praise.

"Some reforms simply are not happening quickly enough," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director for Children’s Rights. "The state must redouble its efforts to ensure that vulnerable kids receive the best attention and services possible."

The state was praised by the group for recruiting more than twice the number of foster homes needed to serve the 7,200 children removed from their parents. But it criticized the state for failing to assess how safe children were in their homes before closing a case, noting that only 25 percent of families were adequately assessed for safety and 35 percent were adequately assessed for risk of harm. "This performance falls far short of the state’s 98 percent goal,’’ according to Lowry.

While underscoring the importance of thorough investigations amid reports like Morgan-Glover’s death, Chesler said he was pleased with the continued work of DCF and Children’s Rights.

"It’s good to see a cooperative effort to achieve a common goal," Chesler said. "It’s a far cry from many years ago."

Turning to Blake, Chesler added: "Keep plugging away."

By Susan K. Livio and Bob Considine/Star-Ledger Staff


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