TRENTON - An independent monitor appointed to keep watch over New Jersey's court-ordered child-welfare overhaul said the state has made strides in caring for 9,000 foster children but too often did not provide such basic services as weekly visits with parents or safety assessments before closing their cases.
Monitor Judith Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington issued her seventh report Tuesday covering the six-month period ending last December. The 165-page report lauded the state for maintaining manageable caseloads, improving foster children's access to health care, and limiting further abuse and neglect after children entered the system.
However, the report showed just 2 percent of children in foster care had weekly visits with their parents in the second half of last year.
The report also showed that caseworkers 81 percent of the time did not do required safety and risk assessments 30 days before closing a case. The assessments show a child's immediate and future risk of abuse and neglect. The target was for assessments to be done in three-quarters of the cases during the period.
Allison Blake, acting commissioner of Children and Families, the department that oversees child welfare, said the report shows the reform is on track.
"While there is still much more to do to improve outcomes for the children and families this department serves, I believe DCF is on the right path," said Blake, who started the job just last week and whose nomination has yet to be confirmed by the state Senate.
A judge ordered federal oversight after the child-welfare group Children's Rights sued in 1999 seeking extensive reforms and the system failed to improve after a previous settlement agreement. The lawsuit followed a series of high-profile cases in which children had slipped through the cracks. A boy in 2003 was found dead in a Newark basement, and four foster boys were discovered severely malnourished in a Collingswood home.
Since 2006, the department has been under federal court supervision.
Among the other findings:
All but 11 percent of the children in foster care were visited by a caseworker at least monthly, but less than half had two visits a month just after being placed with a new caregiver.
The state failed to develop case plans for more than half the children within 30 days of their entering foster care and held team meetings with far fewer families than required under the reform plan.
About 83 percent of children requiring out-of-home placement were placed in a family setting; only one child under 13 was placed in a shelter.