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Monitor lauds agency's progress

The state's child-aid unit has improved, but still lags in key areas, the report said.

NEWARK, N.J. - New Jersey's Department of Children and Families has made strides in many areas, but continues to fall short of several key performance benchmarks, according to a court-ordered progress report issued Wednesday by a federal monitor.

The report finds that case planning, family team meetings, and timely visitation remain areas of concern. Completing safety and risk assessments before closing cases, meeting caseload intake standards, improving services for older youths, and increasing the quality of investigations were also found to be in need of improvement.

The agency, which supervises 7,000 children living in licensed foster and group homes, has made strides in improving access to health services for foster children, doing investigations in a timely manner, and placing children in family-like settings that do not exceed capacity limits, according to the report.

The number of children in out-of-home placements such as institutions is nearing the lowest level since 2004 - an accomplishment touted by DCF officials as representing the fact that the majority of children in New Jersey's foster care system are placed with families.

The report also found that the agency had met or surpassed new staff training requirements and was on track in a multiyear effort to retrain all of its staff.

New Jersey has spent $1 billion to overhaul its child-welfare system under the supervision of a federal judge since 2003, when an outside monitor was appointed to oversee changes.

The overhaul was ordered following the discovery of the mummified remains of a 7-year-old boy in the basement of a Newark apartment, and then, later that year, the discovery of four boys found starving in Collingswood because their adoptive mother withheld food.

The Center for the Study of Social Policy was appointed as the monitoring agency in 2006. Its latest report covers data and interviews from January to June 2011.

As required under the monitoring guidelines, the report was presented Wednesday to U.S. District Judge Stanley Chesler, who said the agency now seemed "light-years" from what it was when the monitoring was ordered.

Chesler commended DCF Commissioner Allison Blake, the court-appointed monitor, and lawyers for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the monitoring, for working to reform the agency.

"It's evident to this court how the entire atmosphere of the Division of Family Services has changed over the years," Chesler said. "I look at you folks, and see a cooperative effort toward a common goal."

The report found DCF "on course toward meaningful practice change in New Jersey," saying the agency met 24 of 55 performance measures in the latest audit.

Of the measures where it fell short, the report found improvement from the previous monitoring period for more than 30 percent.

It highlighted concerns in some areas, including caseworker visits, as well as parent-child visits, considered an essential component of successful family reunification, saying they remain at below-target levels.

Only 58 percent of children in foster care received the required bimonthly caseworker visits during their first two months of placement, according to the report, and only 38 percent of children had the required weekly documented visits with their parents.

The report commends Blake - DCF's commissioner since June 2010 - for improving transparency of the agency's functions with the creation of the Office of Advocacy and the Office of Continuous Quality Improvement.

Blake couldn't speak to the recent case of the death of a toddler in a family known to the agency, as it was still under investigation. The father of the 2-year-old has been charged with murder after the child was found partially submerged in a creek in Wall Township, Monmouth County, strapped into a weighted-down car seat.

The death of Tierra Morgan did not occur during the time frame covered in the most recent monitoring report, but child protective authorities investigated the turbulent relationship between the girl's parents four times, in each case failing to determine that the girl was in any danger.

Two investigations into whether DCF acted properly are under way.