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Good afternoon, Your Honor,

At the last hearing before this Court, I shared with you the Department’s essential set of values, our strategic plan and, most importantly, our vision for the work that we do – our commitment to ensure that all New Jersey residents are safe, healthy, and connected. Today, as I begin my third year as Commissioner, I am pleased to update the Court on enhancements to our practice, advances in our core strategies, and progress in our efforts to be transparent with the public.

To begin with, we have invested heavily in adapting our child welfare case practice, making changes that put us on a path to achieving consistently high quality and maintaining positive outcomes:

  • First, we are enhancing our case practice model by incorporating an evidence-based, family centered approach to child welfare casework that seeks to help family teams organize, prioritize, and document the steps they will take to create safety and improve well-being for children in care. Many of our area offices are collaborating closely with staff to advance and operationalize this work over the next several months.
  • Next, we partnered with the Children’s Research Center to update our Structured Decision Making tools, the set of research-based safety and risk assessments that help caseworkers make consistent and equitable decisions for the families that they serve, and to create and implement statewide training on managing safety and risk throughout the life of the case.
  • We have also prioritized the maintenance of kinship connections. National research has shown that placing children in kinship homes rather than recruited foster homes provides improved placement stability, higher levels of permanency, and decreased behavior problems for children in care – and our own examination of NJ families demonstrates that the single most important protective factor toward positive post-reunification outcomes is kinship involvement.   Therefore, in 2019 I directed my executive leadership team to create Outcomes and Key Results in support of our kinship goals – and the Department’s work to achieving those outcomes is well underway.
  • We continue to develop our comprehensive service array. With the generous support of Casey Family Programs, DCF engaged stakeholders in the fall of 2019 to set a course for the next phase of the development of the Children’s System of Care, focusing on integrated health care, equity, and utilization of evidence-based practices. Our statewide network of Family Preservation Services, Home Visiting, and Family Success Centers and other services continue to support families in all 21 New Jersey counties. And in 2019, we completed a major expansion of the Keeping Families Together program, which today safely preserves over 600 families in supportive housing.
  • Finally, DCF and the Administrative Office of the Courts have committed to reviewing every single child that has remained in foster care over 3 years, and local county committees, comprised of all the attorneys involved, have been reporting the perceived barriers to permanency and recommending solutions.

Turning now to advancements over the past six months in our Core Strategies

  • We committed to incorporating family voice in our work. In 2019, the DCF Office of Family Voice re-launched the DCF Fatherhood Engagement workgroup to include state and local partners, and later this afternoon, I will be speaking to the first convening of the DCF Youth Council. The next step is the creation of a DCF Parent Council as well. These councils are just some of the steps we are taking to move toward shared leadership with those we serve so that we develop policies, programs, and work practice to meet the real-world needs of our constituents and incorporate their concerns and ideas into our system.
  • We committed to reducing racial disparities and promoting race equity. Last summer, DCF formed the Race Equity Steering Committee to ensure that we achieve equitable outcomes for all NJ residents. In particular, this Committee is looking at: (1) children who stay in foster care for short periods; (2) children who experience a substantial delay in permanency; (3) prevention of maltreatment and family separation; and (4) developing the capacity within DCF to collect and analyze data needed to assess the prevalence of disparities.
  • We committed to incorporating healing centered practices and the protective factors framework. This fall, DCF launched a statewide train-the-trainer program with the Connections Matter curriculum, so that all of us in the child- and family-serving systems within New Jersey have access to the latest brain science regarding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), resilience, and the basic human need for connection. We are also pleased to be the recipient, through the generosity of the NJ ACES Funders Collaborative, of an Executive on Loan who will spearhead statewide work on ACES and resilience from within the Department of Children and Families.
  • We committed to creating a culture of safety. DCF continues to work with Collaborative Safety, LLC, to implement a systems-focused approach to critical incident review. This approach, which will allow us to review and learn from serious safety incidents, is rooted in best-in-class approaches developed in safety-critical fields such as heavy industry, aviation, nuclear energy, and health care. DCP&P staff were oriented to this process this fall, and beginning this month, we will be utilizing the Collaborative Safety approach to review child welfare fatalities, near-fatalities, and serious staff injuries. We will next turn to the implementation of this work in residential care settings.
  • We also want to create healing and safe work environments for staff. At the end of last calendar year, we piloted state-of-the art mobile technology to safeguard staff in the field using an alert messaging system that allows users to be monitored in real time and to alert law enforcement in critical or dangerous situations. Over the next several months, we’ll be rolling this out to more of our active field staff because their physical and emotional wellness is a critical piece of our Strategic Plan and transformational goals.

Finally, as a result of work over many years, DCF has become a self-monitoring, self-correcting child welfare agency.   In this Administration, DCF continues to prioritize transparency and remains committed to making performance information available to the public in many different ways:

  • In 2019 we published the 1st DCF Annual Report, which provides a comprehensive review of DCF’s work and performance across all the social service systems we operate;
  • We continued to develop the Child Welfare Data Hub, which – as of this past fall – now incorporates information regarding the Children’s System of Care in addition to child protection metrics;
  • We publish monthly dashboard reports and Children’s System of Care reports to our public website;
  • Using the findings from my 2018 Listening Tour and a review of the Department’s previous needs assessments, in 2019 we began engaging stakeholders and constituents with lived experience to create a set of Quality Standards, which will be embedded into all of our purchased services;
  • We revised and strengthened our needs assessment approach and have incorporated it formally into our Continuous Quality Improvement cycles;
  • Lastly, in partnership with Advocates for Children of New Jersey, DCF has continued to hold semi-annual Regional Forums throughout the state, so that my executive leadership team and I are communicating about the Department and have a forum to receive regular feedback, live, from stakeholders.

With all these initiatives underway, I have recognized that high quality work is only possible when the workforce itself is healthy. In late 2019 I announced the creation of the DCF Office of Staff Health and Wellness, which will focus on developing and executing strategies to ensure that DCF’s own staff are physically and emotionally safe and well on the job.

Your Honor, DCF continues to have strong performance with the requirements of the Sustainability and Exit Plan. As noted in the Monitoring Report, we maintained performance on all of the Foundational Elements, as well as 87.5% of the SEP performance measures.

And we’re seeing significant outcomes for our families. Even in the midst of a national opioid epidemic, the number of children in out-of-home placements declined by 10% from 2017 to 2018, and a staggering 19% from 2018 to 2019. That’s more families who are safely together, who are supported by our agency and who are thriving.

As I reflect on this agency at the start of this new decade, I am pleased to report that it bears little resemblance to the Division of Youth and Family Services of twenty years ago. We are excited about the future of our Department, but more importantly, we’re excited about what our advances mean for the future safety, health and connectedness of all of New Jersey’s children and families. Thank you for your ongoing support as we move DCF forward to a 21st Century child welfare system.

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