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Good afternoon, Chairman Sarlo, and members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, and thank you for your consideration of S-2395 on what is a very busy committee agenda.

My name is Katherine Stoehr, and I’m the First Deputy Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.  Commissioner Beyer sends her regrets, as she had a previously scheduled engagement that was unable to be rescheduled.

As you may know, DCF has requested S-2395 – sponsored by Senate President Scutari and Majority Leader Ruiz in the Senate (thank you Madam Majority Leader), and sponsored by Assembly Speaker Coughlin and Assemblymembers Jimenez and Atkins in the Assembly – in order to meet the requirements set forth in an agreement signed by the state, federal Judge Stanley Chesler, federal monitor Judith Meltzer, and Plaintiff’s Attorney Marcia Lowry in March of this year.

That agreement was an historic moment for New Jersey’s child welfare system, because it laid out the conditions for New Jersey to exit federal oversight after nearly two decades of consent orders, monitoring and review.

By way of context, the Department of Children and Families was created in 2006 as part of the reforms adopted through the consent order established by the Charlie and Nadine H. v. Whitman case, filed in federal court in 1999 and settled in 2003.

And the years in which we have been under federal oversight – since before the inception of DCF, and through the entirety of our existence as a standalone department of state government – have taught us how to be a self-monitoring, self-correcting system, able to pivot based on data to serve the needs of the families who depend on our department.

I came to New Jersey in 2018, and I can tell you that it is truly an honor to be a part of such a dynamic and collaborative child- and family-serving system.

But I can also say, through my experience in other jurisdictions throughout the country, that exit from federal oversight is not a common occurrence.

It’s a testament to the commitment of this Legislature, this Governor, and this Commissioner and her team to serve and support children and families in New Jersey.  This is truly a shared victory that honors everything we all do on behalf of children and families in the Garden State.

But it is also a victory for the leaders who came before us, who laid the groundwork for exit through iterative reform and systemic evolution.

And as Commissioner Beyer has said herself, none of this important reform work would have ever been possible without the dedication and compassion of DCF’s 6,600 workers.

It is through their energy and commitment to doing the best job possible for the families on their caseloads, and to building and maintaining the infrastructure that was so sorely lacking in the past -  data collection and continuous quality review processes, a robust training academy, fiscal processes that enable just in time support of families in crisis, just to name a few -  that we were able to reach a point of exit from federal oversight today.

While we have the confidence of the court, the federal monitor and the Plaintiff’s attorney that we have successfully met the benchmarks for reform laid out in the federal Sustainability and Exit Plan, or SEP, during our negotiations for exit, we determined that additional transparency and accountability would be a positive addition to our system, so that we do not backslide on reform efforts in future years, under future commissioners and future administrations.

That is what S-2395 is envisioned to accomplish.

Through the legislation, we would seek to expand the Staffing and Oversight Review Subcommittee – commonly referred to as the SORS subcommittee – of the New Jersey Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect and empower it to have additional responsibilities for public review of performance outcomes and staffing information for the department.  The SORS panel would issue an annual report on our efforts as a high-performing child- and family-serving system, as it does now.

To be clear, this is not intended as a replacement for federal monitoring.  Through our negotiations with the court and all involved parties over exit, we have established that DCF is no longer in need of heavy surveillance, whether through the federal judiciary, or through a state proxy.

In the course of twenty years of reform, DCF has become a different organization than at the start of our reform journey.  Today’s DCF is agile, data-driven, self-monitoring, and consistently achieves amongst the best performance outcomes in the United States.  The addition of the SORS expanded review is supplemental to our own efforts to track outcomes and respond accordingly, and importantly charges a multi-disciplinary group, rather than one individual, with this responsibility.

This legislation would ensure accountability and transparency to a group of interested stakeholders and child welfare advocates, to guarantee a second set of eyes on the data from a group that is not beholden to the department, but rather has a deep and abiding interest in our success for the sake of the families we are serving as a system.

Additionally, the legislation would codify caseload standards established under the SEP, to ensure that caseworkers are not overburdened and can give each case – and each family – their due consideration and support.

Prior to the enactment of our reforms, the average child protection staff caseload was 42, but it wouldn’t be unheard of for child protection staff to have as many as 50 or 60 cases on their caseload at any given time.  Through this legislation, child protection caseloads would be statutorily capped at 15 cases per worker, and if the SORS review determines that DCF ever exceeds that average daily cap for two consecutive months, a corrective action plan would be triggered.

This is a welcome inclusion in statute, as it codifies well-worn child welfare wisdom – you have to give staff the resources and time to focus on the unique needs of each family they’re working with, in order to be effective in serving families.

The Budget and Appropriations Committee members have some additional amendments that they are considering today on the composition of the SORS committee, and the data that’s available for SORS – and for public – review.  DCF supports transparency and collaboration, and has worked with the advocacy community to make a good bill better through these proposed amendments.

But I also want to acknowledge that, in order to satisfy the exit agreement reached in March of this year, we need to advance S-2395 to the Governor’s Desk by the end of this calendar year.

There may be other areas of DCF’s work that the members of this Committee or the Legislature would be interested to discuss, and we are always open and available to this Legislature to have those conversations, but for the sake of exit, those conversations should be decoupled from consideration of this legislation at this time.

If we cannot pass this legislation by the end of the calendar year, it is not hyperbole to say that we jeopardize our ability to exit federal oversight at this time.  In our last hearing before the federal court, Judge Chesler indicated that he views the legislation as critical and necessary to our plans to exit federal oversight, and the Plaintiff’s Attorney in the case has indicated that she will not support exit without timely legislative approval of this legislation.  If we let this moment lapse, we may not get another opportunity to exit in the near future.

Each year that I have been part of DCF, in each and every hearing in which we have participated to discuss our department’s budget, the inevitable question comes up: when will you be able to exit from federal oversight?  Mr. Chairman, and members of the Committee – the time is now; the moment is here. 

I want to thank you again for your consideration of this bill, and for all of your support throughout our reform efforts, to ensure that we have the resources and guidance to achieve exit from federal oversight. I hope that you are as proud as we are of this state’s child welfare system’s evolution, an evolution that reflects the collective commitment of our government leaders to do right by children and families in New Jersey.

So with that, I’m available to answer any questions you may have.  Thank you.

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