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Good afternoon, Madam Chair, and members of the Assembly Human Services Committee, and thank you for your consideration of A-3707, which is a necessary step in New Jersey’s efforts to exit federal oversight for our state’s child protective services system.

I would like to thank Speaker Coughlin, Chairwoman Jimenez, Senate President Scutari, and Senate Majority Leader Ruiz for their sponsorship of this legislation, as well as their ongoing support in our efforts to transform child welfare in New Jersey.

In March of this year, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families – with the full support of federal Judge Stanley Chesler, our appointed federal monitor Judith Meltzer, and Marcia Lowry, plaintiff’s attorney in the Charlie and Nadine H. v. Murphy lawsuit – announced an agreement that heralded the beginning of the end for the consent order that placed New Jersey’s child welfare system under federal review nearly two decades ago.

This is the culmination of a 20-year reform journey for DCF’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency, and reflects the transformation of our system from one that was largely dysfunctional in the 1990s and early 2000s, to a system that is leading the nation today in so many different child protection outcomes.

It’s a testament to the hard work of my predecessors in the role of Commissioner, each one of whom built upon the success of the previous administration to continue the reform momentum in order to get us to today’s transformed state.

And it’s an acknowledgment of Governor Murphy’s and this Legislature’s strong commitment to a vibrant, well-resourced and well-administered Department of Children and Families, as well as your leadership on issues affecting families throughout New Jersey.

But most importantly, our exit from federal oversight is the direct result of the hard work and dedication of our DCF staff who have carried our reform agenda into their work with children and families.

This is a victory for the 6,600 workers who strive to do the best they can for the families involved in our system, every single day that they come into work.

In March, when I testified in federal court in support of DCF’s exit from the federal Sustainability and Exit Plan, I noted that the present-day DCF bears little resemblance to the agency in the early 2000s that was in desperate need of reform:

  • At the onset of our reform efforts, there was little centralization or standardization in case practice. Caseworkers did not receive sufficient training, and many did not have undergraduate or graduate level education in the principles and foundations of social work.

  • There were 30 different phone numbers to call in order to report allegations of child abuse or neglect. The correct number varied based on the location of the alleged abuse, the day of the week, the time of the day, or the placement status of the child.  Individuals reporting abuse had a difficult time navigating this convoluted system.

  • Caseloads were unmanageable. In some cases, workers could have 50 or 60 cases on their caseload, or even more.  As a result, at its highest, the staff turnover rate was nearly 15% among case-carrying staff.

  • As a system, and across the board, we lacked sufficient resources to perform our work. We did not have enough resource homes for the number of adolescents in placement, and many lived in congregate settings.  There was little or no engagement of kinship caregivers or extended family members when we planned for the wellbeing and permanency of youth and children in the department’s care.

Today’s DCF is agile, data-driven, prevention-focused and family-centric.  And our work to reform our system over the last 20 years has resulted in positive outcomes for the children and families involved in our system.

According to a recent report by the US Department of Health and Human Services, “Child Welfare Outcomes 2019: Report to Congress”:

  • NJ has the 4th lowest maltreatment rate in the country (2.6 per 1,000, compared to 8.9 per 1,000 nationally).

  • NJ has the lowest family separate rate in the country (1.4 per 1,000, compared to 3.4 per 1,000 nationally).

  • NJ ranks in the top quarter of states for children exiting to permanency (92.3% compared to 90.2% nationally).

  • Children in NJ experience fewer moves in foster care compared to their peers in other states (7th lowest number of moves for youth in care in the nation).

  • NJ ranks 4th in the nation for children under 12 entering into a group home or institutional setting (1% compared to 2.9% nationally).

Beyond family outcomes, New Jersey has reduced its turnover rate to just 7% when other systems in this country are experiencing turnover as high as 20% to 40%. 

We have developed a robust case practice model built on the foundational principles of structured decision-making.

We have professionalized the workforce and created pathways for additional professional development through our world-class Office of Training and Professional Development and the Masters Child Welfare Education Program, or MCWEP.

We have centralized intake through the State Central Registry, to create a streamlined reporting process for allegations of abuse and neglect.

We have reduced caseloads to a manageable level.  The average caseload for case-carrying staff in the child welfare system in 2003 was 42.  Today, depending on the worker’s area of expertise, the range is between 10 and 15 cases per worker.

In recognition of our successes as a system, even our most ardent critics acknowledge that we are a changed system.

And as a system, we do not want to return to the challenges we experienced in the 1990s and early 2000s.

As a result, A-3707 would strengthen our system’s ability to monitor and maneuver around changes in our system, to ensure that we have independent as well as internal surveillance to make data-informed decisions for our work.

A-3707 would empower the Staffing, Oversight, and Review Subcommittee (SORS) of the New Jersey Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect to continue to monitor case practice trends and outcomes in our system, to raise the alarm if we see outcomes data start to slip.

The bill would require DCF to provide adequate funding and cooperation to SORS to allow the committee members to accomplish their expanded duties.

The bill also statutorily codifies caseload standards, to ensure that our workers are given the ability to focus on the needs of the families they serve.

This legislation was a crucial part of our negotiations with the court, the federal monitor and the plaintiff’s attorney to satisfy the conditions of our Sustainability and Exit Plan.

But more than that, this bill will ensure that our system has the information and caseload mandate to continue to experience positive outcomes for our families, while continuing our transformation on behalf of those families.

On behalf of the 6,600 staff at DCF, our many system partners, and the children and families served by our Department, I encourage this committee to move the bill.  Thank you.

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