TRENTON - The New Jersey child welfare agency's plan to close 17 schools and two programs that serve children with disabilities, at-risk youths, pregnant teenagers, and teen parents drew intense questioning from lawmakers at a budget hearing yesterday.

Department of Children and Families Commissioner Kimberly Ricketts spent much of the hearing defending the decision to close the schools and two satellite programs at hospitals.

Nine of the schools, including the Burlington campus in Mount Holly, are to close by August. The remainder, including the Cherry Hill and Gloucester campuses, are scheduled to close by the summer of 2010. The Burlington school has about 24 students, Cherry Hill 70, and Gloucester 14, according to department spokeswoman Kate Bernyck. About 560 students attend the schools statewide.

Ricketts said the department was closing the schools for policy reasons, not budgetary ones, and made the decision working with the state Department of Education. Department officials say the move is expected to save $4 million annually when all the schools are closed.

"We are absolutely committed to the appropriate transition to placements in the public sector for each child," Ricketts said. She said the department decided to close the regional schools in part to focus on child welfare and child protection and in part because of declining enrollment.

In the late 1990s, the state had more than 1,200 students in state-run schools with severe disabilities, compared with about 248 students today, Ricketts said. The remainder of the students are at-risk youths and teens who are pregnant or parents.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D., Passaic) asked whether local school districts would have the expertise and ability to deal with the children.

Ricketts said 7,000 students with severe disabilities were being served by local school districts. "We no longer see a need for there to be two systems" providing the same types of educational services, Ricketts said.

Ricketts said the department had sent parents with children in the regional schools two letters informing them of the changes. Next, school officials will meet with families to determine where a child will be sent after a school is closed, she said.

Ricketts said several local school districts had expressed "enthusiastic interest" in hiring state employees who are working with the students. Some school systems have proposed incorporating entire facilities within their districts, Ricketts said.

About 400 full-time state employees and 100 part-timers work at the schools and satellite programs, according to Bernyck. She said she could not say how many would lose their jobs.

Assemblyman Joseph Malone of Burlington County, the Republican budget officer, asked the department to consider extending the transition to ease the process for students and their families.

Much of the hours-long hearing focused on the school closings.

At one point, parents and staff members from some of the schools held a news conference in a room one floor below.

Parents, some in tears, said they were grateful to be able to send their children to the regional schools, where they said they receive special care from knowledgeable and responsive teachers.

Jocelyn Reyes, the parent of a child at the regional school in Essex County, said districts were scrambling to find places for the children.

"They are trying to slap together a plan," Reyes said. "They don't want our children. They keep stating they are only following orders. I think our kids deserve better. I believe they should be where they are wanted."

Nancy Brooks, who teaches at a regional school in Bergen County, spoke of the dedication required to teach students with special needs.

"We are teachers who have answered a special calling, teachers who are adept at forming relationship so that we may hear children who cannot talk, nurse hearts that are broken, build confidence where there is none, reach children who have retreated, and inspire children to work toward their greatest educational potential in the face of overwhelming obstacles," Brooks said.

Joe Finch, an 18-year-old Camden County resident who attends the regional school in Cherry Hill, said the district where he was supposed to attend school made it clear he was not wanted there, telling him he would not make it.

Finch, who has struggled with drugs and cut his wrists, resulting in multiple school suspensions, numerous hospitalizations, and a nine-month stay at a group home, said the teachers at the regional school helped him with schoolwork and problems at home.

Finch is graduating this year and hopes to attend college to study literature. For the younger students, he said, he is sorry to see the state close the schools.

"Even though I am graduating, I think it would be in the best interest to keep the group-home kids at DCF," Finch said. "It is not a want, it is a need."

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