Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jersey gall, part two: ACNJ’s reign of error

There are longstanding ties between Advocates for Children of New Jersey and the former New Jersey child welfare agency chief whose policies ran that agency into the ground.

Over and over again, the group now called Advocates for Children of New Jersey has been proven wrong, in some cases making blatant factual errors.  But rather than admit, even to themselves, that they’ve been wrong about child welfare in New Jersey for more than a decade, ACNJ is working to undermine one of the nation’s most successful child welfare reform efforts.

First, ACNJ opposed the lawsuit that led to a settlement.  Then ACNJ worked to undermine the settlement.  And now that, despite ACNJ’s efforts, the settlement has taken hold, ACNJ is exploiting the latest child welfare tragedy in New Jersey, the death of Christiana Glenn, to try to discredit the reforms.

So, as reported yesterday on this Blog, when what is, in fact, a more rigorous version of the standard measure of child safety used by the federal government proved that New Jersey children are getting safer under reform, ACNJ’s answer was: Change the measure!

Even the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR) isn’t buying what ACNJ is trying to sell.  In a statement released Tuesday the group specifically said the Glenn case should not be seen as evidence that reform isn’t working.  On the contrary, the group’s associate director says that “In spite of the shocking news about Christiana Glenn, it is evident that New Jersey’s foster care system has transformed from the system it was just a few years ago.” 

Of all the statewide advocacy groups concerned with children’s issues, I know of no group that has been more wrong more often – including matters of outright factual error – than ACNJ.  But perhaps because, like so many other “child advocates” she means well, the group’s longtime leader, Ceil Zalkind, remains the Godsource for New Jersey media on these issues - despite ACNJ’s prolonged reign of error.

Explaining that requires a bit of background.


For starters, Zalkind opposed the lawsuit that led to the current reforms.  Here’s what she told The New York Times when the suit was filed:

''The cases detailed in the complaint are compelling, devastating and they are representative of what exists here,'' said Cecilia Zalkind, a lawyer and the associate director for the Association for Children of New Jersey, a nonprofit advocacy group that helped Children's Rights gather data. ''Our concern is whether litigation is the most effective strategy for change at this time. We think it is not.''

And here’s how the New Jersey Law Journal reported Zalkind’s view of the litigation:

"On the one hand, we think the issues they're raising and the named plaintiffs are compelling and representative of continuing problems," says Cecelia Zalkind, director of another not-for-profit advocacy group, Association for Children. 

   However, Zalkind shares Venti's concern that the Children's Rights suit will divert DYFS from its efforts to improve. "We're worried about how distracting and time-consuming a lawsuit would be," she says. Zalkind says she helped Children's Rights gather data for the suit but tried to discourage litigation.

            I’ll get to who “Venti” is in a moment.

            Of course some might wonder why I’d have a problem with this – after all, I’m not exactly CR’s biggest fan.  But I’ve always maintained that in New Jersey, and every other state except one – Michigan – the systems were so bad that even a CR lawsuit, for all its limits, could make them a little better.  So unlike ACNJ, NCCPR agreed with the filing of this suit from day one.  (And, as it happens, for reasons no one could predict at the time, the New Jersey settlement was much better than most agreed to by CR).

            But Zalkind didn’t get it.  She was convinced that the director of the state Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) at the time, Charles Venti, would fix things on his own.  Venti, in turn, did a great job of making Zalkind feel important, making sure the governor named her to one of those Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commissions states create when they want to avoid real reform.  So it’s no wonder Zalkind “shared Venti’s concerns” about the lawsuit.

But Venti and Zalkind share something else: a profound hostility to efforts to keep families together.  Zalkind has spoken out strongly against such efforts at least as far back as 1997.  In 2003, the year New Jersey took more children than any other year on record, Zalkind told Philadelphia public radio station WHYY that there was no problem at all with wrongful removal in the state.  So it’s no wonder she has trouble accepting the fact that child safety has improved, even as entries into care have declined more than 30 percent between 2003 and 2009.

As for Venti, during the last four years of his reign, entries into foster care in New Jersey soared by nearly 25 percent. 

So it’s not surprising that Venti’s take-the-child-and-run approach ran the agency into the ground, leaving it in the horrendous shape it was in when Faheem Williams died in January, 2003.  But Zalkind’s faith in Venti remains undiminished.  Since 2003, he’s been a member of ACNJ’s unpaid board of trustees.


Having opposed the lawsuit, ACNJ didn’t like the resulting settlement either.  Within months of the settlement Zalkind was on the attack.  According to a December, 2003 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Recently, [Zalkind] said, she has become pessimistic about DYFS' chances of successful changes because she sees the state heading toward the family-preservation model.

"If you asked me eight months ago, I would have thought only good could have come," she said. "Now I think there is a risk things could get worse rather than get better."

Now, of course, the independent court monitor, the judge overseeing the settlement and even  CR all have made clear she was wrong.

ACNJ’s attack against the settlement included claims about the state’s child abuse hotline that later were proven to be flat wrong.  ACNJ also opposed what proved to be one of the biggest successes in the New Jersey settlement, strong curbs on the misuse and overuse of the worst form of care, institutionalization.  ACNJ branded strong restrictive language in a plan to implement the settlement “foolish and somewhat offensive.”

She didn’t say who was offended.  Perhaps it was her pal Venti, who was quite the booster of institutions when he ran DYFS.  According to the Star-Ledger (in a 2003 story available in the newspaper’s paid archive) Venti even bypassed the normal request-for- proposal process to rush into a $12.5 million contract for a huge residential treatment center in Newark.  The contract was with a for-profit company run by John J. Clancy, a former Essex County youth services director.

According to the Star-Ledger, DYFS “then bent over backwards to keep the place going, paying dearly all the while, $28,000 a day to care for 80 boys, no matter how many were actually there.”

Oh, and the place also was alleged to be rife with abuse.

Shortly after he retired from DYFS, the Star Ledger reported, Venti went to work for Clancy on what Venti said was “a little short-term research project” on adult corrections. 

Today, with Venti long gone, and the settlement working well, New Jersey is a national model for keeping children, especially young children, out of institutions.

But, of course, every time the settlement succeeds; every time it makes New Jersey’s children safer, every time it reduces institutionalization, it is a reminder of the extent to which Zalkind and her board member, Venti, got it wrong.  So it’s no wonder Zalkind seems to have sincerely persuaded herself that the independent monitor, the judge, and even CR all are wrong when they praise the huge strides in New Jersey child welfare.

There may be no way to stop legislators who want to grandstand and children’s expense and find cheap (literally and figuratively) easy ways to posture about “cracking down on child abuse” from doing so, as is discussed in yesterday’s post to this Blog.  And there may be no way to stop Zalkind from trying to vindicate her and Charles Venti’s mistaken judgments at the expense of proven reforms.

But do New Jersey news media really have to accept every word from ACNJ as Holy Writ, never questioning the organization’s assumptions or judgment, and never examining their track record?