It’s taken nearly 20 years and billions of dollars of investment in technology, staffing and social services, but New Jersey’s child welfare agency is nearing the finish line of a unlikely transformation – from one of the most neglected and mismanaged agencies of its kind to what many say is now one of the best in the nation.
What the Division of Child Welfare and State Permanence will need to operate independently, without the oversight of a federal judge, is that the two top leaders of the state legislature state pass a bill they themselves introduced in March.
The legislation would create a volunteer board that would ensure the agency doesn’t return to the days when workers were drowning in unmanageable workloads and losing track of children — conditions that led the state settle a lawsuit and agree to a court-supervised overhaul.
But the bill sponsored by Senate Speaker Nicholas Scutari, D-Union and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex was not scheduled for a committee hearing. The Legislature approved approximately 100 invoices and sent them to Governor Phil Murphy before the summer vacation break on June 29 and he was not among them.
The legislation’s lack of momentum was a topic of discussion Wednesday during a semi-annual virtual vetting session with U.S. District Court Judge Stanley R. Chesler, who has overseen the case since it began under the term of Governor Jim McGreevey.
“We had hoped the legislation would pass before the end of the legislative budget season, but it’s still pending,” said Judith Meltzer, the court-appointed monitor for New Jersey’s child welfare system. . “The parties agree that if the legislature does not pass the agreed legislation – hopefully this fall – the exit plan will be considered null and void and the parties will meet again to negotiate another external accountability mechanism.”
Chesler expressed “some concern” that the bill did not budge. “I hope he doesn’t get bogged down in a battle between the good and the best,” he said.
Representatives for Scutari and Coughlin released a statement Wednesday night 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 and families safe together is a priority, we need to do this right and will continue to work with the governor to achieve this goal.”
The law project, (A3703) would give the current Child Abuse and Neglect Task Force and its Staffing and Oversight Review Sub-Committee the responsibility of reviewing whether improvements to the child welfare system over the past 20 years of judicial oversight continue.
The subcommittee would check whether front-line staff members are assigned more than 15 cases at any given time per month. Exceeding the cap for more than one consecutive month would require the committee to notify the legislature and governor and would require a corrective action plan to reduce the workload, the bill says.
The death of 7-year-old Faheem Williams, whose body was found in a hidden storage container in a basement closet in Newark, prompted Governor Jim McGreevey to settle the lawsuit and pass reform. The boy’s overwhelmed social worker lost track of his family and ended supervision without checking on his welfare and that of his two brothers, who were badly neglected but survived. The case attracted worldwide attention.
Leaders of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, a nonprofit political and advocacy organization, wrote a letter in May to Scutari and Coughlin asking them to 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 this led to the rejection of the bill.
The legislation could be improved by giving the oversight subcommittee a separate budget to do its job and more independence from the Department for Children and Families, Coogan said.
“There is no doubt that SORS members will be knowledgeable and engaged, but they will also be volunteers with other full-time jobs, and they will need staff resources,” the letter states.
“The ACNJ recommends that, at a minimum, the (subcommittee) have access to the same information that the current monitor has access to and that the information be defined in legislation,” according to the letter.
The letter also asks if the subcommittee might have subpoena power, but Coogan said they decided to drop that request.
Coogan currently sits on the existing subcommittee 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.
“Ultimately, we invested billions of taxpayer dollars to protect children and support families. The results so far are wonderful,” Coogan said in an interview. “If we want to maintain this, we need some type of monitoring system to make sure the state keeps moving forward. The current staff will not be there forever. We must protect all the progress they have made.
Meltzer summarized but did not comment on ACNJ’s suggestions. She noted that the bill as drafted respected the “exit deal” endorsed by the Murphy administration and A Better Childhood, the national nonprofit that sued the state for relief. system improvements.
Meltzer and his staff at the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, DC, have published 30 progress reports on New Jersey’s reforms, and will publish one more. To date, 44 of the 48 objectives have been achieved, according to the last report Meltzer filed in 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 court oversight, followed by a six-month transition period “ending no later than May 30. June 2023,” according to the agreement.
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