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Good morning, Your Honor,

At the conclusion of 2020, we welcomed a period of reflection at the Department of Children and Families, not just on the trials of the year – the pandemic that has impacted everyone in New Jersey and across the globe, the social unrest, punctuated by ongoing systemic racism that persists in various institutions, including child welfare systems, across the nation. We also considered the positive elements that have come from this remarkable, unprecedented year – the incredible progress that DCF has made since the onset of this litigation and on transformations that have taken place within the agency.

The trying times of 2020 demonstrated that the DCF of today is characterized by: strength… stability… leadership… and resiliency. Even in the midst of crisis, and in spite of the societal, health and economic impacts of the pandemic and un-civil unrest, DCF’s operations, practice standards, policies and resources have evolved responsibly and responsively. Through everything, DCF has continued to be able to identify, and to meet, the changing needs of New Jersey’s children and families.

As I shared with you when we were together in July, and as is summarized in the current monitoring report, DCF’s efforts to safeguard the health and safety of New Jersey’s children and families, as well as the health and safety of our staff and provider partners, have been comprehensive. At the onset of the pandemic, we undertook swift modification in many of our operations, including the closure of offices and regional and satellite schools, conversion of 6,700 staff members to remote work and implementing adapted practices and policies to guide our daily interactions with children, families, staff and providers. Just as the state gradually re-opened, DCF likewise resumed certain functions. By July 2020, DCF had resumed in-person contact with children and families and re-started in-person visitation between caseworkers, parents, and children.

I do not want today’s focus, however, to be on the logistical and operational functions that DCF undertook in response to the pandemic, as it would just be a reiteration of the information already presented to this court. Instead, I want to focus on the leadership role that DCF undertook during this emergency and on DCF’s ability to advance the goals and priorities of our strategic plan, despite the adversities of 2020.

Today’s DCF is an agency that families, staff, providers, and even other state agencies look to for guidance, direction and support. Through nearly three years of operational transparency, two-way communication, and stakeholder and partner engagement, we have built trust within our community and, in this role, demonstrated strength and offered stability. We ensured that essential information was shared with external partners through multiple channels including our website, social media, daily surveys, regular provider calls and internally through regular emails and all-staff meetings and video conferences. We dedicated staff and resources to the development of practice reviews, surveys and data collection tools to monitor the impact of the pandemic on our network of services. These efforts made it possible for DCF to craft a comprehensive and thoughtful response in the face of unprecedented challenges.

Our provider community looked to DCF for leadership and direction and DCF delivered. This would not have been the case just a decade ago. At the start of the reform, the provider community and advocates were in the position of directing what was then DYFS. That is no longer the case. During the last ten months, it became abundantly clear that the provider community now looks to DCF to take the lead, set standards and provide guidance. This shift, occurring over the last 18 years, is a true testament to the significant change that has taken hold in the Department.

For example, DCF distributed $2.2M in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds to transition-age youth currently or previously involved in New Jersey’s foster care system who have been economically impacted by the COVID-19 public health emergency. Nearly 1,200 qualifying young adults received a one-time payment of $1,850 to offset any economic hardship they faced as a result of the ongoing public health emergency. New Jersey was the only state in the country to take this action.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak to some of these youth through our Office of Family Voice Youth Council. These remarkable young men and women, in many cases, had to put their hopes and dreams for the future on hold, as they struggled to maintain housing, pay rent, pay utility bills, while facing lost wages, lost jobs, and their own health care challenges. Some of these youth even contracted the COVID-19 virus. There was no question that we had to take care of our most vulnerable youth.

We also placed a moratorium of youth aging out of foster care beginning March 2020.

For our Mobile Response providers, nearly $14 million was distributed as small business grants to stabilize their ability to retain trained clinical staff through the COVID-19 pandemic and pay for new and necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency. Our Mobile Response has been an absolutely critical lifeline for children and youth experiencing a mental health crisis and considering the impact that social isolation has had on mental well-being, it has been a vital service to New Jersey’s families throughout the pandemic.

DCF also provided $9.7 million in COVID Response grants to congregate care facilities in May and December 2020. These funds were made available to support providers’ ability to purchase Personal Protective Equipment, to increase staffing ratios, to comply with licensing and health and safety and to provide extraordinary supports for youth and young adults in their care.

These actions and more allowed us – even in the midst of a pandemic - to maintain performance on 44 of the 48 metrics of the Sustainability and Exit Plan and to continue to advance the goals and priorities outlined in our strategic plan…

  • DCF continued to advance our work to remove the racial inequities in the state’s child and family serving system. Our race equity steering committee presented recommendations to my Executive Management team and we began to prioritize and operationalize those. DCF revised policies to make placement with kinship families and permanency exits to Kinship Legal Guardianship the preferred option. In addition, DCF continues to participate in the Administrative Office of the Courts’ Race Equity Leadership Teams with a goal of prioritizing, institutionalizing, and achieving race equity in the child welfare system. Applying the Structural Racism Theory of Change, child welfare stakeholders from across the state are engaging – the first time for some – in courageous conversations to identify barriers, create strategies, and achieve sustainable results to limit retrenchment.
  • Despite the pandemic, we planned and launched a new, evidence-based case management model for youth in transition, YV LifeSet, on schedule. This program connects youth to life skills and relationship coaching that is goal-oriented and planful. The developers indicated just two weeks ago that they were amazed by NJ’s implementation and, even with a pandemic occurring, we were one of the quickest and most effective launches to date.
  • Our Office of Family Voice utilized innovative approaches to organize and elevate the voices of those with lived experiences to enhance our decision-making regarding policy, operations and practices. DCF-involved youth, working with our Office of Family Voice, formed the previously mentioned Youth Council, consisting of 24 young people with lived experience between the ages of 15-23. This Council presented a set of their own recommendations to my Executive Management team in July, and they are working with us to operationalize those recommendations, while providing feedback and expertise to improve existing programs and planning. Some examples of their recommendations include: the creation of a peer mentoring program with an RFP in its final stages, a review of the entire DCF foster parent training curriculum, the development of a sibling bill of rights and the re-creation of our youth resource website. Additionally, we have begun a birth fathers council and are continuing efforts to establish a full Parent Council, aimed at transforming our system through sustained, meaningful parent engagement and leadership.
  • DCF made strides in our efforts to ensure a fully integrated, inclusive, and equitable Children’s System of Care for New Jersey’s children. We implemented a rate rebalancing project plan to calculate reimbursement rates that more accurately reflect the cost of doing business in NJ’s current social services and behavioral healthcare markets, promote high-quality services, and ensure the long-term sustainability of NJ’s Children’s System of Care, while attracting the best and brightest in an effort to professionalize programs for children and youth in New Jersey. The Governor committed $45M for the last 6 months of FY21 and we are working to annualize that amount for FY22.
  • We continued our efforts to ensure strong management of child safety. We completed efforts to validate and update our Structured Decision-Making tools and are currently training staff on the revised tools. Our implementation of safety science approaches to critical incident review continued in DCPP, and we have launched planning efforts to expand this work to CSOC in the coming months.
  • We moved forward with plans to implement Solution-Based Casework, an evidence-based, family-centered approach to child welfare casework that will improve the quality of our work and interactions with the families we serve. During Monitoring Period 26, we worked with the developer to shift implementation and training to a virtual platform. This will enrich our case practice model and move us closer to achieving the last few outstanding measures of the Sustainability and Exit Plan. Training around the Solution-Based Casework began last week.
  • Through our partnership with the New Jersey ACES Funders Collaborative, we recruited a national expert in Adverse Childhood Experiences and resilience as an “executive on loan”, leading the newly created DCF Office of Resilience. He is leading New Jersey’s efforts to generate a comprehensive statewide ACEs strategy to prevent, protect against and heal from ACES. This work will be more important than ever as we begin to emerge from the COVID-19 emergency, understanding that for many children in NJ and across the country, the pandemic will be another adverse childhood experience.
  • We continued our emphasis on ensuring a work environment and supports that set up frontline staff for success in engaging children, youth, and families. In addition to our continued partnership with Alia Inc., which facilitated monthly well-being groups for local office managers, we continued conceptional development of the Office of Staff Health & Wellness, which included an electronic survey to understand staff’s remote work experiences and insights, communicating regularly about COVID cleaning and other protocols, and managing distribution of PPE to thousands of frontline staff.
  • We maintained our dedication to transparency, further expanding the Child Welfare Data Hub. The Child Welfare Data Hub, which we manage through a partnership with Rutgers University, now includes outcomes data, updated semi-annually, and census & quantitative data updated quarterly, as well as more content related to the Children’s System of Care.

None of DCF’s work would have been possible without the current administration’s support for DCF’s work. Governor Murphy’s commitment to New Jersey’s children and families has been unwavering, as demonstrated by his investment in modernizing the Children’s System of Care at a time when state revenues would have justified deferring such an investment.

There is so much more to share. But these reflections from 2020 make clear that DCF’s transformation into a 21st century child welfare system is well underway. We look forward to continuing our evolution and ensuring that all New Jersey residents are safe, healthy and connected.

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