By Susan K. Livio
TRENTON — The percentage of foster children who were abused again within a year of returning to their families rose 23 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the latest report measuring the court-supervised effort to improve New Jersey's child welfare system.
Overall, the report released today once again showed some progress in the 10-year child welfare reform effort.
But the rise in the number of foster children mistreated again within a year of returning home is a new development and shows the state may be "backsliding" in critical areas, said the attorneys for Children's Rights, the national advocacy group whose lawsuit against the state prompted the indefinite court supervision.
In 2011, the most recent data available, 8.4 percent of children who left foster care were mistreated again by their parents or guardians within a year -- up from 6 percent in 2010, according to the report. The department is expected to keep this rate to no greater than 4.8 percent.
"This is very concerning to us. This is unacceptable, and a trend that has to be reversed," Children's Rights attorney Julia Davis told U.S. District Court Judge Stanley R. Chesler in Newark.
Children and Families Commissioner Allison Blake said after the hearing she would examine foster care data by office and make changes, adding that she may consider retraining or making changes in supervision. "On a local level, the case practice is uneven - that is what the message is," she said.
Blake stressed she was "exceptionally proud" of the department's progress.
Judith Meltzer, the deputy director of the non-profit Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington and the sole monitor of the court-supervised overhaul since 2006 presented the 187-page report -- her 13th -- to Chesler during an afternoon hearing. Like others before it, it showed varying degrees of success and failure.
Caseworkers are responsible for developing a long-range plan for a child within 30 days of leaving an abusive or neglectful home and entering foster care. Only 45 percent of caseworkers had completed these plans -- which the report says are needed so kids won't languish -- on time in June 2012 But by March 2013, an average of 96 percent of workers had completed the plans.
Caseworkers also are responsible for holding "family team meetings" within 30 days of removing a child from a home. The court requires 90 percent of all family meetings occur within this time-frame , but only 56 percent did. It is, however, an improvement from last year, when only 35 percent of these meetings were held, according to the report.
Overall, the Department of Children and Families missed 24 goals, met 21, and partially met 8 others.
New Jersey has come a long way since the lawsuit was filed in 1999, and even since it was settled when 2003, but the pace of change needs to accelerate, said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights.
"New Jersey has proved that where there is a will there is a way, and that (the Department of Children and Families) is able to raise performance standards in even the toughest of times,” she said. “These accomplishments deserve recognition. But because they demonstrate the capabilities of the agency, they also show that there is no excuse for the state to be backsliding on keeping kids safe.”
Meltzer's standard six-month review period was extended by three months this time because of the disruption caused by Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29.
The storm's impact did not greatly affect the child welfare system thanks to a "committed workforce and a responsive infrastructure," the report said
Meltzer blamed the storm for a drop in the number of foster children getting medical checkups and a delay in approving aspiring foster parents' applications, but otherwise, said daily operations were not affected and commended child welfare workers for their "exemplary" work.