Saturday, January 7, 2012

N.J. Assembly panel approves bill to broaden how DYFS investigators define child abuse

By Susan K. Livio/Statehouse Bureau

TRENTON — After the deaths last year of two girls whose parents were not deemed a threat by the Division of Youth and Family Services, an Assembly panel approved a bill Thursday that would broaden how investigators define child abuse in New Jersey.

The measure (A-4109/S1570), which was unanimously approved by the Assembly Human Services Committee, must be approved by the full Assembly no later than Tuesday morning, when the two-year legislative session draws to a close. The Senate has already approved it.

Under the proposed bill, agency investigators could choose among three findings when determining whether there is a valid abuse complaint instead of the current two, which some say limits the ability to protect children.

The proposed measure would allow investigators to "substantiate" a claim if there was sufficient evidence, consider it "unfounded" if no safety risk was detected, or select a new third option — "not substantiated." That would apply if there was not enough evidence to support a complaint, but investigators suspected the child was still "placed at substantial risk of harm."

The families of both children had been investigated for abuse and neglect, but a number of times DYFS workers considered the concerns "unfounded."

Since 2004, the term "unfounded" has held two meanings — no evidence of abuse, or some evidence but not enough to make a solid case. The state dropped the "unsubstantiated with concerns" category out of concern that investigators were not gathering enough facts to make a valid decision.

"Hopefully this legislation will help investigators capture a sizeable portion of abuse cases that might otherwise fall through the cracks," said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), the committee chairwoman who was a sponsor of the bill.

Jesse Moskowitz, a retired assistant director of DYFS, said passage of the measure by the panel "represents an acknowledgement that a well-intended but flawed change six years ago required correction and clarification in order to accurately classify child abuse or neglect findings."

Support for the bill is not unanimous.

"They should be focusing on clarifying policy and improving quality of investigations so that they make good determinations, not feel comfortable with an inconclusive category," Judith Meltzer, a court-appointed monitor who is overseeing an overhaul of the state’s child welfare system, said afterward.

A representative from the Communications Workers of America Local 1038, representing 3,000 DYFS employees, testified in support the bill, but at the same time asked the committee to look into an increasing number of caseloads investigators are handling but the agency is hiding.

The representative, Cataherine Donatos, said the agency was trying to conceal the number of cases out of concern that the judge who ordered the overhaul would find the state out of compliance and order sanctions.

She said that in one DYFS office, 27 workers who investigate child abuse exceeded the court-imposed limit of 12 cases a month, with some juggling 15 to 21 cases.

She added that some cases were transferred to other professionals on paper, but that that staffers were still doing the work and that those who did not find a way to lower casesloads were disciplined.

Donatos said that after the union filed a grievance, the agency transferred six workers and hired a supervisor.

A spokeswoman for DYFS, Leida Arce, said transferring cases to other staff when the workload increased was "a common practice" because everyone is trained in investigations.


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