Murphy official says child welfare fix ‘within reach’ after 15 years and billions spent. Is it?

The oversight stems from a 2003 settlement of a lawsuit that forced the state to spend more money on child welfare services and conduct a top-to-bottom overhaul.

 

As the court-supervised overhaul of the child welfare system enters its 15th year, Gov. Phil Murphy Wednesday met privately with the judge and the independent monitor to pledge his support to improve the agency’s work with troubled families. 

The latest report card, delivered to U.S. District Court Judge Stanley R. Chesler in Newark Wednesday morning, reflects the final six months of 2017 of the Christie administration, which made ending the court oversight a priority. 

Children and Families Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer, according to a statement read in court, described the agency’s progress as “nothing short of inspirational,” declaring the state “is now in a position in which exit from federal monitoring is within reach.”

The multibillion dollar settlement agreement requires the state to meet each goal and maintain them all for a year.

Before the hearing on the report, Chesler met with Murphy, Beyer and monitor Judith Meltzer, at Murphy’s request, Meltzer said.

As Christie administration leaves, progress on child welfare reform stalls

Murphy also met with Marcia Lowry, the attorney who brought the lawsuit against the state in 1999 to force the state to improve what Lowry described as one of the nation’s poorly run child welfare systems.

“I don’t recall any other governor meeting with the judge. That is a first, and a very good indication of the administration’s commitment,” Lowry, executive director of national advocacy organization, A Better Childhood, said after the hearing. “But what matters is what gets delivered.”

Beyer and Murphy’s office did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

Meltzer’s report said the agency’s daily work from July 1-December 31, 2017, has improved but remains “inconsistent.”

According to Meltzer’s report, five goals were newly met; seven remain elusive. 

Shortcomings include:

* Too many foster children were abused or neglected anew within 12 months of returning home to their families;

* Siblings who live in separate foster homes missed mandated visits; 

* Caseworkers did not write or execute enough acceptable “case plans,” described as the blueprint for how children will be reunited with their families or placed for adoption. 

“The interaction is inconsistent,” Meltzer said after the hearing. “There definitely is progress, and they continue to sustain the infrastructure, which is relatively easy to do. They are down to the hard stuff — that there is consistent and high-quality practice with every family they touch.”

 Successes include:

* Enough caseworkers conducted “family-team meetings” twice a year;

* The majority of children returned home from foster care within acceptable time limits;

* 90 percent of investigations involving 193 children met quality standards, according to an in-depth review.

Lowry said she’s optimistic about Beyer, who held high-level positions in the child welfare system from 2008 to 2011. “I hope the new commissioner is taking a hard look at a whole range of issues,” she said.

“You can’t have a decent child welfare agency without good interactions with children and their families, and the fact is that has not improved,” Lowry said.

Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO for Advocates of New Jersey, a longtime watchdog group on children’s issues, agreed with Lowry’s assessment.

Zalkind noted the report said that performance last year was rated “below acceptable levels” in “key practice areas” that including teamwork, implementing plans and engaging and understanding what is happening with mothers and fathers in at-risk cases. 

“These aspects of practice are critical to many other performance measures and DCF is still struggling,” Zalkind said. “I am encouraged however that Commissioner Beyer has indicated an interest in hearing from the community.”

 Susan K. Livio may be reached at slivio@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.

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