TRENTON - New Jersey's child-welfare agency continues to make progress in its years-long overhaul, but substantial work remains, an independent monitor found in a report released yesterday.

The Department of Children and Families "has made significant progress" in every area required, the report said.

But it found that in order to meet performance benchmarks for the next period, the state "will need to simultaneously maintain the infrastructure improvements and accelerate the pace of improvements in direct practice with children, families, and the wider community."

A 1999 lawsuit filed by Children's Rights, a child-advocacy group based in New York, on behalf of the state's foster children led a federal judge to appoint an independent monitor to review New Jersey's progress in reforming its troubled child-welfare agency.

New Jersey's child-welfare services came under intense scrutiny after a string of high-profile cases, including the discovery of four severely malnourished foster children in Collingswood and the death of a 7-year-old boy in Newark in 2003.

Since then, the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and made numerous changes to try to reform child-welfare services. In 2006, Gov. Corzine made the Department of Children and Families a cabinet-level department to improve accountability and focus attention on the agency.

In its fifth report on New Jersey, the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington found "beginning evidence of improved outcomes for children and families."

Among the accomplishments noted by the monitor:

From January 2006 to February 2009, the number of children legally free for adoption dropped from 2,260 to 1,352.

The number of children placed in out-of-state facilities dropped from 322 in July 2006 to 98 in January 2009.

The DCF's Institutional Abuse Investigations Unit, which had suffered from backlogs, met its goals for timeliness of investigations.

The settlement agreement with Children's Rights lays out two phases for the reform process. The current monitoring report is the last on the first phase, which was intended to build the structure within DCF to support its mission. The second phase will examine whether the department is better serving and protecting children and families.

Gov. Corzine said the latest report "highlights the overwhelming progress being made by the staff at DCF."

DCF Commissioner Kimberly Ricketts said the state had sustained its progress.

"I have the fullest confidence that we can and will meet the challenges that face us," Ricketts said. "The children and families of New Jersey deserve nothing less than success from this department."

Children's Rights Associate Director Susan Lambiase also praised the state's efforts.

"New Jersey's child-welfare system is being transformed by this court-ordered reform effort in ways that are producing increasingly clear and significant improvements in the lives of the state's abused and neglected children and their families. Now DCF must not only maintain the reforms it has made, but also translate them into still better results for the kids and families who depend on it, and Children's Rights will continue to monitor its progress closely."

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Association for Children of New Jersey, was less enthusiastic. She said that while there have been some improvements, she had not yet seen evidence of the most important outcomes.

"To me, the fundamental question is, 'Are kids safer?'" Zalkind said.

She said she was concerned, for example, about the death last month of 9-year-old Jamarr Cruz of Camden, who was beaten to death, allegedly by Vincent Williams, Cruz's mother's boyfriend. The state's Division of Youth and Family Services met with Cruz's mother and Williams for close to a year after Williams hit Jamarr with a belt in December 2007, authorities said. DYFS closed the family's case last November.

"The reform was designed to prevent deaths like that - not that every death can be prevented, but presumably you have better-trained workers, smaller caseloads, more resources - how could you be supervising a family and somehow miss that this kid was being beaten regularly?" Zalkind said. "I'm disappointed. I thought this monitoring report would get to more fundamental outcomes."

DCF's internal review of the case is ongoing, said department spokeswoman Kate Bernyck. She said the state's child fatality review board had asked to conduct an expedited review of the case.

Judith Meltzer, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, said her agency's next report would also review the case with an eye toward systemic issues.

Meltzer said the next report, which will cover January through June, likely will be published in mid-November.

Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com