Thursday, January 7, 2010

Less foster care, more family preservation, safer children: Now it’s New Jersey’s turn


The story is familiar, but it looks like it's heading toward a happier ending than most.

New Jersey never had a good child welfare system. By the end of the 1990s it really stank; the leadership at the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) and its then parent agency, the Department of Human Services, was among the worst in the country.

The group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights sued. This was one of those cases where the system was so bad even a CR suit was bound to make it better. That's why we supported the suit even as the state's largest so-called child advocacy organization, and Godsource for the state's media, the Association for Children of New Jersey, opposed it.

DYFS fought the suit tooth and nail, until the death of a boy named Faheem Williams in 2003 caused such a furor that the state had to settle. The case also set off a foster-care panic in a state where entries into care already were soaring, thanks to the poor leadership mentioned above. By 2004, New Jersey was tearing apart 50 percent more families than it did four years before, and its rate of removal was way above the national average.

Then the state's children got two lucky breaks.

First, the settlement occurred during a brief period when CR was flirting with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, (which, for many years, helped to fund NCCPR). Casey helped to craft a far more innovative settlement than anything CR's ever thought of itself. In fact, it was so innovative that CR apparently had second thoughts and eventually hollowed out its original decree. But even the revised version was better than what CR usually produces.

By then, New Jersey already was benefitting from lucky break #2: a new Governor, Jon Corzine, had named Kevin Ryan to run the new Department of Children and Families (DCF. CR had demanded creation of the agency because there's nothing they love more than moving around boxes on a table of organization). Ryan had been the first director of the state's Office of Child Advocate – another response to the Faheem Williams case – and one of the very few people ever to make such an agency work for children instead of against them.

What the new consent decree didn't demand in the way of progressive reform, Ryan did. And there is every indication that his successor, Kimberly Ricketts, continues to move things in the right direction.

The latest such indication comes in the latest report from the independent monitor who oversees the consent decree, Judith Meltzer, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy. Past reports have been promising, but they focused largely on the prerequisites for better outcomes. This report asks: Are the outcomes really improving? The answer is a very strong yes.

This report proves that New Jersey can be added to the list of states that have made children safer by embracing family preservation. From 2006 through 2008, the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year in New Jersey decreased by 25 percent. (That's not in the monitor's report, it's from federal data. The monitor can measure only what's in the consent decree, and you don't think a CR consent decree would care about that, do you?)

But here's what is in the report:

At the same time as entries into care were falling, the monitor's report shows significant improvement on key safety indicators – even though the consent decree imposes stricter requirements for one of these measures than the federal government. Both reabuse of children within 12 months (the federal indicator allows you to measure after only six) and the rate of foster care recidivism, the percent of children sent home from foster care who were removed again within a year,- have improved since the state started taking away fewer children.

Bottom line: Once again, the claim that child safety and family preservation are at odds has been proven false. Like so many other states that are turning around their child welfare systems, New Jersey is proving that you can't have child safety without family preservation.


There's also been remarkable progress in these areas:

Study after study has shown that, when children must be placed in substitute care, placement with a relative in kinship care is more stable, better for children's well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called "stranger care." But that didn't used to matter in New Jersey.

This is a state where the child welfare agency used to hate kinship care. One former Human Services Commissioner, Michele Guhl, actually said that helping relatives financially with kinship care "undermines the very foundation of the family." She felt grandma and grandpa should just do it all on their own. By that logic we should abolish Social Security and leave it to children to assume all the financial costs of caring for their parents in old age.

Now, the monitor's report finds that 35 percent of foster children are placed with relatives, well above the national average of about 25 percent, and on a par with the best systems in the country for kin care. And half the new foster homes licensed during the most recent period under review are homes of relatives.

While the least detrimental form of substitute care has increased, the worst form of care, group homes and institutions has declined. The proportion of children trapped in such places in New Jersey is now well below the national average.

They're also doing a lot less parking of children in shelters – a particularly awful option for young children. In the most recent period measured, DCF did this to only four children under the age of 13, and none under the age of 11. (All this will no doubt come as a shock to all those shelter and institution operators around the country who insist they are an absolute last resort and there is really, truly no other option for all those children they've been warehousing.)

New Jersey also is forcing far fewer children into out-of-state care. That number of children housed out-of-state is down from 327 in 2006 to 66 now, a drop of 80 percent,


As the report also points out, there is much that needs to be done, notably, in my view in the area of visits between parents and children. Visits are not a privilege for parents, they are a right for children. They cushion the blow of foster care, and they are the single biggest predictor of successful reunification. But children's right to visits is being violated in New Jersey at an alarming rate. Only 17 percent of foster children are seeing their parents even once a week. In addition, only 42 percent of families get a case plan within 30 days. The case plan is the list of hoops a family has to jump through. If there's no plan, they can't even start to jump – so the child's time in foster care is prolonged. And Family Team Meetings, a key reform strategy, are not occurring nearly often enough.

The need to do more also applies to New Jersey's efforts to spare children the enormous trauma of needless foster care. The rate of removal in New Jersey, once far above the national average, now is only slightly above that average. But systems that are recognized as, relatively speaking, national models take children at significantly lower rates. There's no reason New Jersey can't continue to improve as well.

Nonetheless, New Jersey is off to a very good start.


I've read a fair number of monitoring reports from several states over the years. I've never seen a state under a consent decree come so far so fast as New Jersey, as documented by this report. Just to give some idea:

I've often cited Alabama as a national leader in child welfare thanks to a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (An NCCPR board member was co-counsel for plaintiffs). In 2005, The New York Times
put the Alabama reforms on its front page. But it took about seven years to show real progress. In part that's because at least one new governor came into office determined to try to sabotage progress made to that point.

Illinois also is, relatively speaking, a national model. Nearly a decade ago, the Asbury Park Press (which once led New Jersey in child welfare coverage) did some excellent reporting pointing to Illinois as a possible model for New Jersey. But their consent decree was signed in 1989. They didn't start to show real progress for about 11 years.

And those are the success stories. Plenty of systems operating under consent decrees still are failing, especially those operating under typical CR "McSettlements":

The system in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin stank when their class-action suit was settled in 2002. It still stinks.

Washington D.C. settled its case in 1993. It's still a mess, made worse as long as the agency is under the thumb of D.C.'s egomaniacal Mayor Adrian Fenty. The failures are documented in reports from the same monitor who oversees New Jersey's decree.

Connecticut settled in1989 – it, too, remains a mess.

And Michigan – don't get me started about Michigan. (Though that decree is much newer, it is a significantly inferior settlement to the one in New Jersey and the state is plagued with significantly inferior leadership).

So while this monitor's report on New Jersey documents only a start in the right direction – it's a very impressive start.


Of course the question is whether a new governor, Chris Christie, will make sure this progress continues. There is at least one precedent for doing the right thing:

When Marc Cherna was named to head the county-run child welfare system in metropolitan Pittsburgh, Republicans controlled county government. (He was hired away from DYFS, by the way.) When the Democrats took over, they replaced every agency chief except Cherna. I don't imagine anyone said it out loud, but my guess is that the feeling was that child welfare normally can only be trouble for a political leader, but in Pittsburgh the system was earning praise – so they didn't want to mess with it.

Perhaps Chris Christie will see similar value in keeping the improvement going.