Monday, June 13, 2011

UPDATED, 5:25PM: Foster care in New Jersey: Child safety continues to improve

Monitor’s statement is rebuke to those seeking a return to the days of “take the child and run”

Judge overseeing class-action suit also praises agency

            The latest state to see the take-the-child-and-run crowd try to roll back a successful reform is New Jersey. As usual, they’re trying to exploit a tragic death.

But this time a reform effort that has significantly reduced entries into care and improved child safety has two strong defenders – the independent monitor overseeing a class-action lawsuit settlement, and the judge who has the final word on that settlement.

            In unusually-strong language for this kind of document, monitor Juith Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy issued a special statement along with the regular monitoring report released today.  In that statement she strongly defended both the reforms in general and the handling of the recent tragedy.

            That tragedy is the death of Christiana Glenn, who was allegedly starved and denied medical care by her mother.  According to news accounts, this allegedly occurred after the mother came under the sway of a boyfriend involved in what he persuaded her were religious rituals.

As is always the case with statements from child welfare court monitors, the language is measured, even genteel.  That’s because a monitor’s role also is to serve as a de facto mediator between the state and whoever is suing the state.  So by the standards of such documents, this statement amounts to a stinging rebuke to those who have tried to exploit the Glenn case to roll back reform and return to the take-the-child-and-run approach that dominated the system before reform.

            In general, “New Jersey’s child welfare system is …doing a better job protecting and supporting New Jersey’s children and families,” than before the reforms, Meltzer said.

            She went on to address specifically, the case of Christiana Glenn. 

            New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families and its Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), investigated four previous reports about the family and determined that all of them were unfounded.  That prompted those who have opposed reform from the start to “raise questions” about whether too many cases are labeled unfounded and more children should be torn from their homes.


            But Meltzer concluded that the reason these four reports were declared unfounded is because they were, in fact, unfounded.  The reports were received between 2006 and 2008, well before the boyfriend entered the picture.  At the time, Meltzer wrote, “none of the activities and behaviors that were associated with the children’s abuse and Christiana’s death were observable by the DYFS worker” nor were they reported to that worker by the family’s only neighbor, a day care worker or the children’s pediatrician.

            Workers for agencies like DYFS are expected to be many things.  But they are not expected to be psychic.  Sometimes children “known to the system” die and it’s not the child welfare agency’s fault.

            That means even looking only at this case, there is nothing to indicate the reforms have compromised safety or that New Jersey needs to return to taking away more children.

            Using a more reliable measure than the latest horror story, the overall rate of reabuse of children left in their own homes after a substantiated report of maltreatment, the monitor found that the reabuse rate remains well below the level required to meet the terms of the consent decree, and, of course, well below where it was when New Jersey was taking away far more children.

            Indeed, to the extent that there was any failing it was that DYFS was not able to persuade the mother to accept enough voluntary help. 

            This echoes a theme in previous monitoring reports on New Jersey: that the biggest failings involve prevention and family preservation, not investigations or failure to be aggressive about removing children.

            The monitor’s comments do not address the issue of a newly-discovered fifth report received days before Christiana’s death, a call which a hotline operator did not refer for investigation.  Based on news accounts, it appears that the person calling was anonymous, he had an address but no name for the family and his concerns were vague.

If that is the case, had this been the only report on this family, it would have been the right decision.  The apparent failure on the part of the hotline operator was a failure to link the address given by the anonymous reporter to the address of Christiana.  So the operator apparently was unaware of the family’s history.

            Unfortunately, in any system that responds to tens of thousands of calls every year, operators sometimes will screw up, and sometimes that will have tragic results. That may well be what happened here.  It does not follow, however, that the hotline regularly is failing.

The state's handling of the investigation into the Glenn case won praise from the judge in charge of the consent decree.

According to the Newark Star-Ledger:

"This is not an agency that went into a bunker mentality," Judge [Stanley R.] Chesler said, in praising DCF for working closely with Meltzer, the federal monitor, as she has sought in recent weeks to review DYFS's investigation of the Glenn family in 2006 and 2008. In expressing further approval of the agency's handling of its investigation into Christiana Glenn's brutal death, he said DCF had "presented this situation indeed transparently."

            The monitor’s report also is notable in other respects.  While New Jersey still has a very long way to go, few systems under consent decrees have come so far so fast.  To cite just one example: New Jersey went an entire year without placing even one child under age 13 in a parking place “shelter” -  one of the worst forms of placement.  That is a record almost any state would envy, whether under a consent decree or not. 

And that helps explain why Judge Chesler said that, compared to when he first started overseeing the New Jersey child welfare system, that system has improved "drastically."

            What makes this all so important is the urgent need to avoid a repeat of the foster-care panic - the huge spike in needless removals of children - in the immediate aftermath of a horrendous case that made headlines in January, 2003, the death of Faheem Williams. 

            That case led to a foster care panic in a state that already had been wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach for several years.  It also forced the state to settle the lawsuit.  And even though the suit was brought by the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights, the settlement came during a time when CR was willing to listen to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a former funder of NCCPR, and so was more progressive than most.

            The result: A reversal of the take the child and run approach, a significant reduction in entries into foster care and safer children.

            That’s what’s under attack right now – and fortunately, that’s what the independent monitor has come forward to defend.