Good morning Judge Chesler, Judith Meltzer, Marcia Lowry, 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 twelve.
I want to begin by thanking Judy and her team for their continuing work with the Department of Children and Families.
I feel that this report is an accurate assessment of our ongoing reform efforts and the continuing progress we are making on many performance measures. Likewise, the report also captures those areas where continued focus and effort is needed.
When I came before you in July, I talked about the “ebbs and flows” of our work at DCF, and I think it is important to restate that fact today. For example, the number of children in out-of-home placement grew during period twelve, however, as noted by the Monitor, “Despite the increase in numbers that has created strain on worker caseloads and workloads, DCF has maintained performance in many areas and showed improvement in others.”
For this, your honor, I am very proud. The reality is, there are always going to be fluctuations in the work that we do at DCF. But I firmly believe that having an adaptable workforce and a strong infrastructure allows our child welfare system to adjust to changing circumstances. This was not always the case and previously unexpected pressures may have thrown us off track. I am proud to say that this is no longer our reality. Today, we are a system that has the ability to maintain and continue progress in the face of challenges – of which clearly illustrates that our system is in a very different place today.
And this is especially critical at this juncture in our reform efforts. As the Monitor indicated in this report, “Many outcomes (of the MSA) that remain to be achieved go to the heart of practice and system reform” and “translating that model into consistent and sustained change throughout the state takes multiple interventions and time.”
Your honor, I believe we are at a place in this reform process where we are using a laser focus to guide us and drill down on the core issues we must still continue to improve upon. As the Monitor points out, historically and from experience, after a certain amount of time, the speed of reform simply just slows down. While that does not necessarily mean the work is finished, it just means that demonstrating progress looks very different today than it did in the beginning.
Allow me to provide you with an example.
Since 2006, the number of children placed out-of-state for treatment has continued to decline. As of the end of the period twelve monitoring report, all but one of the five youth placed out-of-state were in a specialized program for the deaf or hard of hearing. Just this month, DCF issued an RFP to establish a program for these children with hearing impairments right here in New Jersey, so that they may come back home and be closer to their families, while still receiving the vital services they need to grow and thrive. This is a major milestone in our reform, and indicative of my point that change takes time, but ultimately success is achieved.
While this may be just one small program for a finite number of children, the resulting impact is enormous, not just in meeting the requirements of this MSA, but doing what we truly believe is in the best interests of the children we serve.
I could share many more positive examples of our work around reform and progress with you, such as our success in developing a national model for providing sustained access to healthcare for children in out-of-home-placement. Or the incredible work we are undertaking with our adolescent population and children aging out of the system. These – and many other areas of performance for which we are exceptionally proud – reflect who DCF is today.
With that said, I acknowledge that work remains to meet the expectations of this MSA. As we continue to thoughtfully analyze those areas of practice that need more attention, we have been able to identify new approaches to our practice, as well as develop a better understanding of how existing practice serves children.
One example is our visits between parents and their children in out-of-home placement who continue to work toward reunification. As this report reflects, we have worked with the Monitor to understand – for those parents who are not visiting – why they are not.. Sometimes, it is because we are not making those visits in the proscribed timeframe – and we continue to work on that area of practice. And other times, there are instances when the parent is unavailable for a visit due to hospitalization, treatment or other unexpected circumstances, or a visit has been determined not in the child’s best interest by the court. In recognition that those circumstances do occur – and clearly negatively impact our ability to plan visits – we made a change in our SACWIS system to identify those circumstances and “count” them in a legitimate way to accurately capture the circumstances for visitation for that particular child and family. So in addition to improving our actual visits between parents and their children by 7% points this period – we also feel that we can better understand and portray the reasons why some visits are not occurring.
Similarly, we are working with the Monitor around other measures – such as risk reassessment prior to case closure, and transfer to adoption worker within 5 days– where even though our performance may be outside of the proscribed timeline –an analysis of the data with a wider lens will begin to help capture our ongoing work in that area.
We are encouraged that – with the Monitor’s help – we are able to utilize our own data and analytical capacity to better examine – and ultimately improve – those areas of practice that have seen slower progress.
I commit to you and the Monitor that the entire department continues to embrace these challenges with energy and enthusiasm.
Your honor, before I close, please allow me to take a moment to mention Hurricane Sandy. While I understand that the the storm did not occur during the monitoring period we are discussing today, I strongly believe mentioning this historical event is appropriate and relevant at this time.
I don’t think I need to tell anyone here in this courtroom about the devastating effect Hurricane Sandy had on our state. We all witnessed devastation, the likes of which were unimaginable. But despite all of the challenges our state faced in the immediate aftermath of the storm – and continues to face to this day - I am overwhelmingly impressed by the unbelievable commitment and dedication shown by the entire DCF staff to ensure the safety and well-being of ALL of New Jersey’s children and families, not just those who were previously known to us.
First, you should know that despite the fact that power was out across the state for days on end, travel was difficult with downed trees and live wires, and communication by phone and email was a challenge to say the least, the State Central Registry – the Child Abuse Hotline – remained fully operational and staffed with committed individuals 24/7. We never once experienced any disruption in service as dedicated staff rode out the storm in the call center to assure their important work would continue to get done.
In the days immediately after the storm, our staff left the safety and security of their own homes to make family visits, check on our children, and get our offices open and operational around the state. One thing I am most proud of and I want to share with you is the fact that within just a few days of the storm, we reached out to every resource parent in the state to assess their well-being, and to assist with any emergent needs. Your honor, I think these examples, while unique to the experience of the Hurricane, are largely indicative of the overall culture that now exists at DCF. As you have read in the current Monitor’s report, DCF’s sustained and ongoing reform and progress – while still ongoing– is noteworthy. These systemic changes do not happen in a vacuum, or as the result of the actions of one or two people. It takes a Department of fully committed staff at all levels, who are dedicated to the task at hand – and I am proud to stand before you to represent them.
Thank you for allowing me to speak before you today as we all work together to ensure the safety, well-being and success of New Jersey’s children and families.