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Good morning, Your Honor.

The six months that have passed since we last appeared in this court have been nothing short of extraordinary. During Monitoring Period 25, DCF made impressive progress towards achieving the goals outlined in both our strategic plan and the Sustainability and Exit Plan. March of 2020, however, ushered in the COVID-19 pandemic and its all-encompassing impacts. The current public health crisis has required DCF’s operations to be responsive and evolutionary, changing—in an instant—the way that we conduct our work while remaining dutiful to our critical mission of service to New Jersey’s children and families.  

I’ll focus the first part of my remarks on our work during the latter half of 2019 and into the early months of 2020 and conclude with some insight into our more current actions because I think it conveys the incredible teamwork and commitment we have fostered and realized among our workers, providers and advocates.

Relevant to Monitoring Period 25, DCF has sustained its upward trajectory, making substantial enhancements to our practice and advancements in our core strategies.

  • We made way for significant enrichment of our case practice model by contracting and planning for the implementation of Solution-Based Casework, an evidence-based, family-centered approach to child welfare casework that will improve the quality of our work and interact with the families that we serve.
  • We moved forward with our efforts to prioritize the maintenance of kin connections by reviewing and finalizing department-wide Objectives and Key Results aimed at increasing the use of kinship placements for children in out-of-home care. By strengthening culture, reviewing and modifying policies, and eliminating technical barriers, DCF ultimately aims to place 60% of children in a kin placement within seven days of removal and 80% of children in a kin placement within thirty days of removal.
  • DCF, with the support of Casey Family Programs and the Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS) formed a task force of providers, families, youth and partners from across the state to devise a strategic framework for the Children’s System of Care. This framework will be the roadmap for the creation of a fully integrated, inclusive and equitable system of care for New Jersey’s children.
  • We continued to find ways to infuse family voice into our work. During the monitoring period, our Office of Family Voice developed a youth council, which I began meeting with in February 2020. The 20 member youth council, which was designed alongside youth, provides invaluable feedback and expertise by making recommendations to improve DCF’s service and support offerings to youth in foster care, to identify how to best achieve positive outcomes, and to evaluate system reforms. In addition, in Fall 2019, I conducted a second round of a Statewide Listening Tour, hearing directly from over 170 families who receive services from the Department. And, our Fatherhood Engagement Committee was successfully re-launched.
  • We took action on our commitments to reduce racial disparities and promote race equity. DCF’s race equity steering committee was charged with reviewing the Department’s policies and practices to identify areas in which implicit bias and racism may be impacting our work. The steering committee developed concrete goals to work towards over the next two years and established subcommittees and workgroups to move the work forward.
  • We continued to advance goals related to staff health and wellness. In Fall, 2019, I held an internal listening tour, meeting with over 500 staff from all 21 counties, our workplace wellness groups for middle managers continued, and we continued to monitor staff safety incidents.
  • DCF became a charter member of the National Partnership for Child Safety, an effort of multiple jurisdictions from across the country to improve child safety and prevent child maltreatment fatalities by strengthening families and promoting innovations in child protection.

Looking at performance as measured by the metrics of the Sustainability and Exit Plan, DCF has achieved more than ever before. In total, at the close of 2019, we had satisfied 93% of Sustainability and Exit Plan measures. DCF maintained performance of all foundational elements and metrics previously met and hit milestones that the agency has been working towards for years. For the first time, DCF hit the final measure related to timely permanency. We not only met, but well out-performed, the target for re-entry. Together, these metrics show that children are not only achieving permanency in a timely manner, but they are remaining home after their successful discharge from care. While we still have work to do related to the quality of our case practice, even on these measures we have moved metrics in a positive way.

In the midst of these successes and our work to develop them further, we were faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, and not long after, national outcry in the wake of several instances of police brutality and racist incidents. These health and social issues have impacted all aspects of life for children, families, and staff in New Jersey. It has changed the needs and dynamics of the families we serve and has changed how we—as a system—meet those needs and conduct our business. The heightened social unrest has highlighted the absolute necessity of acting to uproot the institutional racism underpinning child welfare practice in New Jersey and across the nation.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, DCF took immediate steps to safeguard the health and safety of the children and families that we work with, as well as our staff. We closed 46 local offices, restricted access to 9 area offices and moved regional and hospital-based satellite schools to remote learning. DCF’s Office of Information and Technology converted the majority of our 6,700 staff members to remote work. As New Jersey took swift action to limit the spread of the virus, DCF altered practices and policies that guide our daily interactions with children, families, our own staff and partner providers:

  • We established COVID-19 Response Teams that took responsibility for child protective service investigations and the completion of home visits on high risk cases.
  • We temporarily suspended requirements for in-person visits between parents and children, children and their siblings and caseworkers and families in favor of telephonic and video conferencing communication.
  • We authorized the provision of many outpatient, in-home and community-based services via remote technology after the enactment of new legislation permitting telemedicine and telehealth services..
  • We learned to operate in a court system that was transitioning from in-person hearings to virtual proceedings.
  • We extended services to youth aging out of foster care through December 2020; and
  • We requested that the Race Equity Steering Committee present the executive leadership team with recommendations regarding how to navigate the COVID-19 Emergency within a race equity framework.

In my January appearance before the court, I stated that the DCF of today bears little resemblance to the DYFS of two decades ago. Today I will tell you that the COVID-era DCF, as a system, is not the same system we had just a few months ago. For example:

  • In April and May 2020, calls to child abuse and neglect hotline dropped to the lowest monthly volume since the hotline was established in 2004. Calls in April 2020 were 63% lower than calls in April 2019.
    • Likewise, calls to Performcare and IAIU were reduced dramatically between February and April 2020. Services, such as Mobile Response, saw marked decreases in referrals and use.
  • Entries into foster care decreased by 60% between February and April 2020 and there were fewer exits from foster care compared to the same time last year.
  • The statewide caseload of families served by DCPP in their own homes was reduced by 40% between February and May 2020, largely driven by the record low number of investigations.
  • And like major institutions across the country, DCF is undergoing a critical self-examination of the extent to which our work has – consciously or not – contributed to racial disparities in New Jersey.

Anecdotally, we hear that many families who were already struggling find themselves facing compounding challenges, and critical service providers are struggling to keep their doors open.

Additionally, on June 23rd, the Communications Workers of America negotiated a mandatory furlough program that impacts over 85% of DCF’s workforce financially and emotionally during the month of July.

The economic impacts of the pandemic—both to the families we serve and to the state as a whole—cannot be understated. Earlier this year, the State took the unprecedented step of extending Fiscal Year 20 through September 30, 2020. In May, State Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio announced a forecasted $10 billion loss in revenue through June 30, 2021. If the forecast holds, this will represent a 17% loss of revenue in Fiscal 2021 alone.

As the needs of children and families in New Jersey change in light of the societal, health and economic impacts of the pandemic and social justice movement, DCF’s operations, practice standards, policies and budget resources will continue to evolve responsively and reflectively. In the past, pandemics as well as periods of civil unrest have brought about major shifts in cultures, economies and ways of life. It is our intention at DCF to continue to learn, to evolve, and to embrace the innovation and creativity that is emerging in these times. In so doing, we will intentionally guide New Jersey’s child and family serving systems forward. Now—more than ever before—it is critical for us to ground ourselves in our anchoring vision: that New Jersey residents will be safe, healthy and connected.

DCF will not return to being the agency that it once was. But our commitment to advancing the agenda of our 21st century child welfare system - a system that works for all children and families - remains.

Thank you.

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