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New Jersey Child Welfare System Reform Approaches Finish Line

The state’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency could operate without oversight from a federal judge for the first time in 20 years if one bill becomes law. But the legislation is stalled without a committee hearing date.

(TNS) — It’s taken almost 20 years and billions of dollars of investments in technology, personnel and social services, but New Jersey’s child welfare agency is nearly at the finish line of an unlikely transformation — going from one of the most neglected and poorly run agencies of its kind to what many say is now one of the nation’s best.

What the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency will need to operate independently, without the supervision of a federal judge, is for the top two leaders in the state Legislature to pass a bill they themselves introduced in March.

The legislation would create a volunteer board that would make sure the agency does not return to the days of workers drowning in unmanageable caseloads and losing track of children — conditions that led to the state settling a lawsuit and agreeing to a court-supervised overhaul.

But the bill sponsored by Senate President Nicholas Scutari, D-Union and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex has not been scheduled for a committee hearing. The Legislature approved about 100 bills and sent them to Gov. Phil Murphy before it broke for summer recess on June 29 and this one was not among them.

The legislation’s lack of momentum was a topic of discussion Wednesday during a virtual biannual check-in session with U.S. District Court Judge Stanley R. Chesler, who has overseen the case since it began during Gov. Jim McGreevey’s tenure.

“We had hoped that the legislation would have passed before the end of the legislative budget season, but it is still pending,” said Judith Meltzer, the court-appointed monitor for New Jersey’s child welfare system. “The parties are in agreement that if the legislature does not pass the agreed-upon legislation — hopefully this fall — the exit plan will be considered null and void and the parties will come back together to negotiate an alternative external accountability mechanism.”

Chesler expressed “some concern” the bill had not moved. “I hope it does not get bogged down in a battle between the good and the best,” he said.

Scutari’s and Coughlin’s representatives issued a statement late Wednesday when NJ Advance Media asked what was going on with their legislation.

“This is an incredibly complex issue involving multiple government agencies and tens of thousands of workers,” the legislative leaders said in their statement. “Keeping children safe and families together is a priority, we need to do that right and will continue to work together with the Governor towards that goal.”

The bill, (A3703) would give the existing Child Abuse and Neglect Task Force and its Staffing and Oversight Review Subcommittee the responsibility of monitoring whether the improvements made to the child welfare system over the last 20 years of court supervision continue.

The subcommittee would keep track of whether frontline staffers are assigned more than 15 cases at any one time per month. Exceeding the cap more than one consecutive month would require the committee to notify the legislature and governor and require a corrective action plan to reduce caseloads, the bill said.

The death of 7-year-old Faheem Williams, whose body was found in a storage container hidden in a basement closet in Newark, became the impetus for then Gov. Jim McGreevey to settle the lawsuit and embrace reform. The boy’s overwhelmed caseworker lost track of his family and ended supervision without checking on his well-being and that of his two brothers, who were severely neglected but survived. The case captured worldwide attention.

The leaders of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization wrote a letter in May to Scutari and Coughlin asking that they give the subcommittee more power and a budget to carry out its work, said Mary Coogan, its vice president. Coogan said she and President and CEO Cecilia Zalkind did not receive a response to their letter. They do not know if it led to the bill getting sidelined.

The legislation could be improved by giving the subcommittee in charge of oversight a separate budget to do its work and more independence from the Department of Children and Families, Coogan said.

“No doubt the members of the SORS will be knowledgeable and committed but they will also be volunteers with other full-time jobs, and they will need staff resources,” the letter said.

“ACNJ recommends that as a minimum, the (subcommittee) have access to the same information the current monitor has access to and that the information be defined in the legislation,” according to the letter.

The letter also asks whether the subcommittee could have subpoena power, but Coogan said they have decided to drop this request.

Coogan sits on the existing subcommittee now and is vice chair of the child abuse task force while Zalkind has served on both. “Thus we are fully aware of their potential and limitations,” according to the letter.

“The bottom line is we have invested billions of taxpayer dollars to protect children and support families. The outcomes so far are wonderful,” Coogan said in an interview. “If we want to maintain that, we need some type of monitoring system to make sure the state continues to move forward. The current staff will not be there forever. We have to protect all the progress they’ve made.”

Meltzer summarized but did not comment on ACNJ’s suggestions. She noted that the bill as written fulfills the “exit agreement” approved by the Murphy Administration and A Better Childhood, the national nonprofit that sued the state to seek improvements to the system.

Meltzer and her staff at the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington D.C., have issued 30 progress reports on New Jersey’s reforms, and will issue one more. To date, 44 of the 48 goals have been met, according to the latest report Meltzer filed with the court on Wednesday.

“We have built a system that is capable of self-monitoring and self-correcting,” Children and Families Commissioner Christine Beyer told the judge.

If progress continues, the state could request a hearing by the end of the year to formally end the court’s supervision, followed by a six-month transition period “ending no later than June 30, 2023,” according to the agreement.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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