Good morning your honor.
For a moment let's step back eight years to when, in 2006, the MSA was first executed, and then four years, to June 2010, when I first appeared before you as Commissioner.
Between 2006 and 2010, a period when this department was led by five different commissioners or acting commissioners, DCF still made early progress reforming New Jersey's child welfare system, but there was much work ahead.
There were significant concerns about the Statewide Central Registry's operations and effectiveness.
We hadn't yet implemented our new case practice model and neither the Office of Performance Management and Accountability nor the department-level Office of Adolescent Services existed.
Since 2010, DCF has made, continues to make, and has sustained significant and fundamental reforms.
What were once nascent reform initiatives are now institutionalized and part of our culture, practices, and policies. Today's DCF seeks out, embraces, and employs best practices to better serve children and families.
In today's DCF, the Statewide Central Registry, which handles 75,000 reports of child abuse and neglect each year, now answers calls within 15 seconds, transmitting 100 percent to the field within three hours and 92 percent within just one hour.
Today's DCF has integrated services for 16,000 children with developmental disabilities and their families to provide them seamless and uninterrupted care.
And in the face of Superstorm Sandy, today's DCF maintained our performance and expanded services, to vulnerable populations.
As part of our commitment to accountability and transparency, we now post critical data each month to our website about our department-wide and local office performance.
Our efforts and success are getting noticed, creating confidence and trust among others to support and invest in our children and families. I'm pleased to share that we have received grants from several organizations to support our work with homeless youth, human trafficking survivors, and pregnant and parenting teens.
Today's DCF looks little like the organization that first executed the MSA eight years ago or the department that appeared before you in 2010 when I first became commissioner.
This doesn't mean our reform work is over. Self-assessment must and does happen daily. As a learning organization, there will never be a time when our work is complete.
But two things should be clear about today's DCF:
The "highly problematic" organization that signed the Modified Settlement Agreement eight years ago no longer exists.
Today's DCF has made and sustained improvements in infrastructure, service delivery, and, most importantly, outcomes for children and families.
We are committed to continuous improvements. We are prepared to continue to work with both Children's Rights and the Monitor to strengthen and protect New Jersey's children and families.
However, I believe we are at a crossroads regarding the MSA in its current form. In some areas the MSA does not fully capture our performance. In other areas, eight year old benchmarks would benefit from a fresh look that's informed by current thinking regarding child welfare practice and the lessons we've all learned since 2006.
I'd like to present a few examples why a fresh look at the MSA is appropriate and necessary.
The MSA's 98 percent benchmark for caseworkers having monthly visits at each child's placement location is not aligned with national standards and fails to acknowledge the department's achievements.
We have been above 90 percent for five consecutive reporting periods - that's more than three years. However, the MSA does not recognize another five percent of children in placement who have indeed been seen by their caseworker, but somewhere other than the placement location.
The federal Administration for Children and Families requires that 90 percent of children be seen by their caseworker without regard to location and that 50 percent of children be visited by their caseworker at the child's placement location.
DCF has exceeded the federal government's 90 percent target for monthly caseworker visits for the last two years, reaching 96 percent in 2012 and 98 percent in 2013.
For visits with children at their placement location, DCF is nearly twice the federal government's target, reaching 96 percent both years.
The MSA requires that 95 percent of resource homes receive a child's health passport within five days of placement. This fails to recognize that children receive a pre-placement medical exam within 24 hours of placement. This exam ensures a child's wellbeing and is shared with foster parents to immediately inform them of essential health issues. Furthermore, a child health nurse visits the foster home in person early during placement to discuss the child's health with the resource family parents.
The MSA's five day deadline impairs the goal of providing a full and accurate health passport by failing to take into account the work and time needed to complete the document.
Our nurses research a child's immunization history and special health care needs.
We examine medication prescribed over the child's lifetime to understand prescription patterns and the basis for prescribing, adjusting, or discontinuing medication. This includes requesting information from the child's past health care providers, who don't always share our urgency.
Requiring that this be completed in just five days emphasizes speed over accuracy. Every child should have an accurate, current, and comprehensive health assessment, but a narrow five day window increases the risk for errors.
Since 2011, we have furnished health passports to more than 90 percent of resource homes within 30 days of a child's placement. Thirty days is reasonable to complete and provide accurate health passports.
We are committed to keeping resource families fully informed about a child's health history and that children receive the care they need. DCF has become a nationally recognized leader in ensuring that children receive health screenings and coordinated care and that their caregivers are informed about, and participate in, a child's health care.
The Monitor noted aspects of our adoption practice where there is room for improvement. We agree and are taking some specific and concrete steps to address this. But I'd also like to offer some context.
DCF has finalized adoptions for approximately 1,000 children each of the last three years. We are proud that more than 90 percent of these adoptions involve foster parents or family members. In most situations these children are in their adoptive home early during the adoption process. This is evident by our department's performance, which for five years has exceeded the MSA's benchmark that 80 percent of adoptions are to be finalized within nine months of adoptive placement. Since 2009, 86 percent to 96 percent of adoptions were finalized within nine months. For this monitoring period, we achieved 100 percent.
Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, there are usually 20 to 30 children and teens each monitoring period who are not in an adoptive home when parental rights are terminated. For these youth, the MSA requires that 75 percent be in an adoptive home within nine months. Our performance has ranged from 24 percent to 64 percent. For this monitoring period five of the 21 children from this cohort were placed in adoptive homes within nine months. Notably, today an additional nine children in this cohort - including three sibling groups - have been placed for adoption, have a family that is being assessed for them, or are with foster parents that plan to adopt them. Our work to find adoptive homes does not stop at nine months.
Family Team Meetings, Caseworker Visits with Parents, and Parent-Child Visitation
Regarding family team meetings, caseworker visits with parents, and parent-child visits, DCF and the Monitor are working to correct under-reporting of our performance.
The MSA's performance methodology, which assumes meetings and visits can be scheduled and successfully held 100 percent of the time, does not allow for meetings and visits that fail to occur for reasons entirely beyond our control, including when parents are unavailable or missing or refuse to participate or when meetings and visits are precluded for legal or safety reasons.
We appreciate the Monitor's intention to examine this so that future monitoring reports can fully and accurately measure and reflect our performance.
Quality of Investigations
Investigations are central to our work and are as important as a timely response to a report of alleged child maltreatment.
This is why we're troubled by the MSA finding that we're 78 percent compliant for investigation quality. While we acknowledge room for improvement, the Period 14 report neither reflects the strength of our investigations nor the strides we have made to further improve our practice.
A case review of more than 700 children shows that:
Safety and Risk Assessments were done in 100 percent of the investigations
Reviewers agreed, or partially agreed, with the investigator's finding 95 percent of the time
Mothers of alleged victims were interviewed 97 percent of the time, and
Caseworkers met the required response time in 93 percent of the investigations
We are pleased that several key elements of our investigative work reach the MSA's quality benchmark and wish to have this work acknowledged.
The MSA's benchmark for placement stability - which is defined as no more than two placements locations for a child within that child's first year in placement - needs to be reconsidered in light of two things.
First, there are circumstances when moving a child is in the child's best interest. This may include moving a child so he or she can be with their siblings or family members. Or, it may be part of the child's treatment plan.
Second, while the MSA suggests we're underperforming on stability, we're outperforming most other states.
For Federal Fiscal Year 2012, the Administration for Children and Families reported that DCF's placement stability was 87.5 percent, putting New Jersey above the national median of 84.6 percent and in the 75th percentile nationally.
Your honor, I believe a fresh look at the MSA can more accurately measure our performance and produce better outcomes for New Jersey's children and families.
We appreciate that Children's Rights and the Monitor are willing to revisit selected benchmarks. We look forward to working with them.
Over the last eight years all of us have been informed by the monitoring process, including learning the MSA's strengths and weaknesses. We ask that this Court support a fresh look at the MSA to ensure that it continues to advance its original goals.
We also look forward to considering changes the federal government is making to monitor child welfare system performance. Their revised Child and Family Services Review, which is conducted in every state, has strong parallels to the MSA. There may be real benefits to having these two processes complement each other.
Your honor, I'm enormously proud of our department, the changes we've made, and the commitment of our staff. All of us are resolved to improving the futures of children and families. The changes we have made - and will continue to make - are for their benefit. And as a learning organization and self-correcting organization, today's DCF is committed to continuous improvement and progress to ensure a better tomorrow for every individual we serve.
Thank you, your honor.