Good morning Judge Chesler, Judith Meltzer, Marcia Lowry, Jodi Miller and my colleagues from the Department of Children and Families. I am pleased to join you today to discuss the Federal Monitoring Report for period eleven.
I am sure you would agree that New Jersey’s Child Welfare System is at a significantly different place today than it was when this lawsuit was first settled. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the plaintiffs for their ongoing collaboration and partnership as we continue to improve our system, in order to better serve the children and families of our state.
Before I share remarks about the current monitoring report, I would like to express my concern about the recent budget developments for the Department of Children and Families. While I acknowledge feeling challenged by the budget the Legislature has given us, I am confident that the Christie Administration remains committed to the ongoing reform of New Jersey’s Child Welfare System. And it is because of that support I feel able to assure you that we will proceed with a focus on our core mission - ensuring that New Jersey’s children, youth and families are safe, supported and successful.
In fact, in an effort to clarify our mission of ensuring the safety, permanency and well-being of New Jersey’s most vulnerable children and families, the Division of Youth and Family Services (formerly known as DYFS) has now been renamed the Division of Child Protection and Permanency.
In addition to a name change, and greater clarity, I think it is important to note that a great deal has already been achieved since we began our reform efforts. We have emerged from the days when we were a crisis driven system to one where we planfully work with children, youth, and families across our state to meet their service needs.
Your honor, by December 2011, DCF had already successfully met 20 of the 54 Phase II performance measures specified in the original MSA. The Department continues to make notable progress in other performance measures, and we continue to be in compliance with 28 of the 33 ongoing Phase I and Phase II requirements. The Department is showing a steady and continuing upward trend in performance in 14 additional measures over recent monitoring periods.
According to the Federal Monitor’s report, “there have been significant accomplishments since 2006 in improving child welfare system performance and meeting many of the requirements and outcomes of the MSA…and DCF remains on course towards meaningful practice change in New Jersey”.
And we could not agree more with the Monitor! I am so proud of the significant strides we have made in New Jersey.
But I do want to be clear that we share the concerns of the Monitor and Plaintiffs with regard to those areas where we acknowledge lesser advancement toward compliance. Clearly, our child welfare reform remains a work in progress. While we continue to face challenges, Period XI also saw a tremendous increase in referrals to the field and a resulting impact on the workload of our investigators over subsequent months.
It is important to note that the monitoring period we are discussing today reports on performance that dates back almost a full calendar year. Over the intervening months, DCF has embarked on several strategies to steady and right size the workload as well as continue to incrementally improve these areas of our work. I would echo what I have heard the Monitor say in the past – that these areas of practice where we appear to have plateaued represent the core aspects of our work with families, and as a result this is where we are seeing much slower progress than the infrastructure changes that comprised the balance of Phase I of the reform. Please know that I am committed to forward movement in each of these areas.
I am happy to report that we have implemented several strategies which are beginning to show successful outcomes. An FTM Facilitator has now been identified in every local office. In addition to monitoring the general logistics of the Family Team Meetings, the facilitators actually assist staff in engaging families and helping them identify those supports whose participation is critical. While the Facilitators were not in place during Period XI, I want you to know that we have seen an improvement in our performance of FTMs across the state. We achieved 69% compliance statewide in the month of April for Initial Family Team Meetings and in May we achieved 74% compliance. Additionally, 26 offices achieved 100% compliance in April and 24 offices achieved 100% compliance in May.
We have also utilized creative staffing approaches to address our current challenge regarding worker caseloads, especially in intake. While we initially attributed the change in caseload compliance to increased referrals following the media attention surrounding the Penn State child abuse allegations, the reality is this increase did not slow for several months. I am happy to report however that we are finally seeing a return to normal – a Jersey Comeback if you will – our intakes were down again in June, and the number of cases assigned to local offices for investigations was also down.
In order to specifically address intake caseload compliance, we assigned each of the 10 Area Offices additional positions in order to create “Impact Teams” intended to assist Local Office staff maintain MSA standards. I am pleased to say that, even though some offices were not up and running until May 1, we have already seen a positive effect in offices across the state. As a result of these staffing adjustments and the reduced volume, our intake compliance rate was at 73% in May and 85% in June.
Your Honor, while these are just some examples, I assure you that DCF remains committed to identifying solutions and taking the necessary steps to address the challenges we are experiencing. Our system is at a place where we are strong enough to be dynamic, and are no longer limited to trying old strategies, rather today we are developing solutions based on data and moving forward strategically, rather than in haste.
In closing, your honor- I feel that the significance of today’s hearing cannot be stressed enough. Not only have we started the process of modifying the original MSA to better reflect our current system, but the strategies and tools that we are using today to improve our practice are now coming from within our Department. To me, this is a milestone that is worth highlighting. It is clear that in the world of child protection, there will always be peaks in referrals, new elements of practice for staff to learn, and the need for adjustments in our approach to those challenges, but we have arrived at a place where we have the flexibility, knowledge and agility to do that ourselves. While we recognize there is still much work to do, I hope that it is evident that those we serve are in a far better place than ever before-thanks to everyone in this room and those who started this work years ago.
Finally, we look forward to our continued collaboration with the plaintiff on the MSA and in sharpening our focus on the critical aspects of the New Jersey Child Welfare System.