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Good afternoon, Chairman Sarlo and members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.  I’m happy to once again join you to discuss the Governor’s proposed FY 2024 Budget for the Department of Children and Families.

As I begin my prepared remarks, I’m reminded that budgets are often considered within the dual context of the successes an Administration has achieved in the preceding fiscal year, and the challenges that it faces looking ahead into the next fiscal year.

And this makes sense.

We want to assure the taxpayers of our state that investments made on their behalf have yielded positive results.

At the same time, we cannot rest on accomplishments alone. We must provide a plan for the future needs of our state and its residents – one that acknowledges that our work and the evolution of our system is far from complete.

With that in mind, Governor Murphy’s FY 2024 budget proposal once again delivers historic investment in New Jersey’s child welfare system, with an eye towards the future, and in recognition of our status as a leader in the national child welfare landscape.

The Governor’s budget proposal allocates $126 million in growth for DCF – the biggest increase the department has ever received, and it’s a necessary one.

It includes more than $40 million to increase provider rates and providers’ contract-base across each of DCF’s operating divisions, because our providers offer vital front-line services and support for so many of the families involved with DCF.

It’s important to consider that this investment in stabilizing our contracted service providers comes at a time when most social services agencies around the country are contending with an unprecedented workforce crisis.

Beyond rate and base contract increases, DCF is also spearheading an effort to conduct a workforce analysis for our provider agencies to elevate best practices within the recruitment and retention of staff to work in those agencies.

This workforce study will provide us with a 10-year prospective look which will assist us with developing appropriate strategies to grow and support this vital workforce.

We plan to share what we learn, within NJ, to lift up all of our providers across the department’s contracted services array and to ensure an adequate high-quality workforce to meet the needs of children and families statewide.

The investment in providers also strengthens mental health and well-being supports for our children.

In the shadow of a national youth mental health crisis that has seen as many as 3 in 5 teenage girls and 1 in 3 teenage boys report persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, the Governor’s proposed budget allocates $43 million for an innovative, first-of-its-kind statewide support network available in schools and in communities.

The New Jersey Statewide Student Support Services network, or NJ4S, is another useful tool, and a welcome addition to our existing integrated wellness and mental health care continuum available to children and youth, and their families.  

It will provide proactive prevention and brief, targeted therapeutic intervention, while connecting students and their families to supports within their communities or through other components of the care continuum, such as the Children’s System of Care.

Last month, we announced the awarding of contracts to 15 providers who will operate the regional NJ4S hubs to serve students and their families on a local level. And we held a kickoff meeting with these providers just a few weeks ago, as we prepare to have this vital support in place and operational for the start of the 2023-2024 academic year in September.

The Governor’s proposed budget includes nearly $4 million towards the phased-in implementation of a universal home visiting model which will ensure that every family in New Jersey has access to a scheduled visit from a nurse, within their home and within weeks after delivery or the arrival of a resource or adoptive child.

The visiting nurse will perform health screenings on mothers and their babies, answer questions the parents may have, and refer to other programs and service connections available to the family.

We’re just the second state to offer universal home visiting to families who experience the joys of childbirth, adoption, or foster care.  And we are the first state to offer home visiting to families who have experienced the loss and tragedy of stillbirth.

The budget proposal includes $20 million in State and federal ARP funds through our Division on Women to support survivors of domestic violence to achieve safe, stable housing, so that they may begin the healing process for themselves and their families.

Through this funding, we’ll be able to continue to address the emergency, short-term transitional housing needs of this at-risk and growing population.

Beyond these funding priorities, I would also like to acknowledge the ongoing transformation of child welfare in New Jersey to become a true family wellbeing system, which is reflected in the proposed budget.

At the start of my remarks, I said that budgets should be considered within the context of the successes achieved by an Administration, and I would be remiss if I did not mention the pending exit from 20 years of federal oversight for our Division of Child Protection and Permanency, or DCP&P.

In fact, our final court hearing was held April 25, during which the judge dismissed the litigation and we entered into a six-month transition period from the federal monitor to the NJ SORS oversight and review. This truly is a milestone for New Jersey and for the Department of Children and Families.

Exit from federal oversight has been the brass ring for so many of my predecessors at DCF, and it’s been through their incremental work – and with the support of this Legislature, this Governor, and as a result of the hard work of so many dedicated staff at the department through the years – that we have been able to achieve this historic accomplishment.

But by closing this chapter in our child welfare journey as a state, we have a mandate to consider what comes next.

We know that traditional definitions of caregiver child abuse are not always adequate to address the needs of all of New Jersey’s families.

That is why Governor Murphy has included $5 million to establish a treatment fund for children who are both victims and actors in problematic sexualized behavior.  These are families that do not require a child abuse investigation because the parent is the primary protector and able to advocate for their child. The funds will ensure that these families get the medical and therapeutic support for their children without deeper involvement in the child protection system.

It’s also why the Governor included $6 million towards the implementation of our federal Family First Prevention Services Act 5-year prevention plan in New Jersey.

Our home state has long been viewed as a leader in prevention programming, through our home visiting models, Family Success Centers, and more recently, early relational health programs.

But as a result, we ended up being a laboratory for prevention programming, funded by the state, but without much in the way of federal support.  The vast majority of federal funding was tied to protection services, not prevention.

Recently, through the Family First Prevention Services Act, the federal government has developed a national framework to support upstream maltreatment prevention in every state, rather than only funding protective interventions that are only applicable after abuse occurs.

By connecting our existing prevention services – and developing new evidence-based and informed prevention programming – through the Family First Act, we can leverage our state investment to trigger federal matching funds, in order to enhance the prevention supports available across the system.

As we look to the future of child welfare in New Jersey, we recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to meeting the needs of children, youth and families in our state.

We need a comprehensive, collaborative, and nimble system that can pivot when necessary to respond to the unexpected – just as we did during COVID, and we continue to do through the youth mental health crisis and the evolution of our system to focus on family wellbeing.

Governor Murphy’s proposed FY 2024 budget gives our department the resources to continue our transformation journey.

I look forward to working with all of you towards the goal of systems transformation, and I’m happy to answer your questions at this time.

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