Deal set to end federal oversight of NJ child welfare services

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has  signed legislation that puts New Jersey’s child welfare system on a path to ending 20 years of federal court oversight next year.

Once considered to be among the most dysfunctional and mismanaged in the nation, the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency — formerly known as DYFS, the Division of Youth and Family Services — is poised the shed the court monitor and report to a less-powerful independent state panel that will monitor and annually report on the agency’s progress.

The court monitor, Judith Meltzer, and Marcia Robinson Lowry, the founder of A Better Childhood, the nonprofit that sued the state on behalf of foster children mired in a poorly managed and underfunded system for years, have been waiting for the bill to pass both houses of the state Legislature and signed by the governor before agreeing to end the lawsuit.

Murphy signed the bill (A3703) a day after the state Senate approved it and sent it to his desk. The state Assembly approved it last week.

“Today’s legislation recognizes the significant progress our state has made in reforming our child welfare system to ensure no child falls through the cracks and every case is treated with the time and attention it needs,” Murphy said in a statement.

Meltzer said she was “really pleased that the legislation passed and was signed. It will help to sustain the improvements made as a result of the litigation and years of investment.”

Robinson Lowry said the new law “makes clear that Gov. Murphy and the Legislature are committed to ensuring that the gains that the state’s child welfare system has made will continue, and that the child welfare system is, indeed, a self-correcting system that deserves to leave federal court oversight.”

“We think this is something to celebrate, on behalf of the children of New Jersey, and we look forward to a final exit from court jurisdiction,” she added.

The tentative agreement reached in March with the court monitor and a child advocacy organization relied on the state Legislature passing a bill that would create a state oversight panel.

The bill’s sponsors, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, and Senate President Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, didn’t begin holding hearings on the measure until October, seven months after the parties had reached the agreement.

The law elevates an existing Staffing and Oversight Review Committee, which will be expected to evaluate the division’s overall performance, including whether front-line workers continue to manage no more than 15 cases at once. The committee can demand change if the caseload limit exceeds 15 per worker for two consecutive months, according to the legislation.

During the lowest points in the history of the agency two decades ago, frontline workers said caseloads of 50 or 60 were common, and were even higher under some circumstances. The triggering event that led to the lawsuit settlement in 2003 was the death of Faheem Williams and the severe abuse and neglect of his brothers, whom the agency lost track of for nearly a year.

Meltzer’s team analyzed data and interviewed staff and other people connected to the child welfare system twice a year since 2006. A court-appointed panel of experts supervised the reforms from 2003 to 2006.

While under federal oversight, New Jersey’s child welfare agency was elevated to his own cabinet-level department and has grown to a workforce of about 6,600 largely to limit the number of families a caseworker may supervise at one time. Billions of dollars also have been spent establishing a computerized case tracking system, improving training and supervision, expanding services to families to avoid state supervision and raising the monthly stipend for foster parents, among other changes.

New Jersey is tied with Maryland with the smallest number of children entering foster care in 2019, with 1.4 children per capita, according to a congressional report mentioned in Murphy’s announcement.

Christine Norbut Beyer, commissioner for the state Department of Children and Families, the division’s parent agency, called the enactment of the law “a watershed moment for New Jersey, made possible through Governor Murphy’s and legislative leaders’ commitment to a dynamic, well-resourced child welfare system, the cumulative work of past and current leaders, and the hard work and dedication of DCF’s 6,600-member workforce.”

Negotiations will continue but the agreement says federal court supervision may end in mid-2023.