Monday, June 28, 2010

Less foster care, safer kids: NJ child safety improves as removals drop

In case any more evidence is needed that family preservation improves child safety, it can be found in the latest report from the independent monitor overseeing a consent decree governing child welfare in New Jersey.

The most important single statistic can be found on Page 103: The key measure of child safety, reabuse of children left in their own homes, has dropped significantly from 2006 through 2008. In fact it was cut by more than half.

During that same time period, the number of children taken from their homes over the course of a year in New Jersey dropped by more than 25 percent, according to data the state submitted to the federal government.

Once again, the evidence is in: Finding smart ways to reduce needless removal of children improves child safety.

But the news isn't all good. Although New Jersey is getting better at keeping children out of foster care in the first place, it's actually getting worse at efforts to reunify families once those children are taken.

Nothing is more important to successful reunification than regular visits between parents and their children in foster care. By now New Jersey was supposed to be able to ensure that 40 percent of foster children had weekly visits with their parents and 50 percent saw them every other week. The previous monitor's report found that only 17 percent of foster children had weekly visits with their parents. The most recent report found that things actually got worse – with only two percent having weekly visits. The monitor calls that cause for "extreme concern."

This may have something to do with the goal line being in sight for getting out of court oversight.

The consent decree results from a lawsuit brought by the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights. Because the decree was crafted with a lot of help from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, it's a better decree than anything CR has negotiated on its own. It's also a wide-ranging document, requiring DCF to do a great many things. And CR's track record suggests that some of those things, like boosting adoptions, are a lot more important to CR than anything involving keeping families together.

With the goal line for exiting from the decree in sight, DCF may be concentrating on the parts of the settlement that CR really cares about – like adoption – and paying less attention to reunification.

There's one more reason for concern. This most recent report covers the period ending December 31, 2009 – when Jon Corzine still was governor. One day after the previous monitor's report showed impressive progress, the new governor, Chris Christie, fired Corzine's commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families. It's not clear if Christie is committed to continuing the progress DCF has made in recent years.