Three more years of federal monitoring for DCF, commissioner estimates

TRENTON – Under a close watch by the federal authorities, the Department of  Children and Families will likely need two to three more years of monitoring, according to an estimate proffered by Commissioner Dr. Allison Blake.

The monitoring stems from a 2004 lawsuit filed by Child’s Right, a child advocacy group, after three brothers who were found starved by their adoptive parents, even though  DCF’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) visited more than 30 times over four years without taking action.

The state must meet all of the benchmarks set forth in a 2006 settlement agreement with federal monitors, and must maintain the benchmark levels for two years, Blake said Thursday.

Overloaded caseworkers were found to be one of the root causes for the lack of oversight at the time, but Blake said that has been corrected and no more staff is  required by the department at this time.

“That is my only real concern,” said Assembly Budget Chairman Lou Greenwald,  (D-6), of Voorhees. “In spite of these tight economic times, we don’t want to see slippage (in reforms that) cost us so much more to repair and cost so many innocent lives along the way.”

“We are building a child welfare system from the bottom up,” Blake said, implementing recommended managing-by-data systems and creating an Office of Continuous Quality Improvement with a “robust internal review process.”

Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, (D-29), of Newark, asked, “If everything went great (from here on out), when would we hope to be free from federal monitoring?”

“Two to three years, probably, still,” Blake said.

Two DCF residential centers in Vineland and Ewing are closing this year, following the closure of a Woodbridge facility in 2010.

“They were both significantly under census,” Blake said to an inquiry from Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, (D-15), of Ewing.

The Ewing facility closed on March 17 and the Vineland facility shuttered its doors on April 1. The children were dispersed to “a variety of different places,” including to other facilities and into the community, Blake said. “There was an individual assessment done on every child.”

An Office of Legislative Services analysis claims the three closures will net $14.2 million in savings in the FY12 budget, including a reduction of 291 staff positions.

Overall, the budget is reduced by 1.4 percent, from an adjusted FY11 appropriation of $1.58 billion to a proposed FY12 appropriation of $1.56 billion.

Three more years of federal monitoring for DCF, commissioner estimates