Congratulations from Gov. Chris Christie for the state Department of Children and Families. Placed under a federal court monitor following a tragic death a decade ago. The federal monitor now says the state child welfare agency has achieved 20 of 36 goals. Most significant: it’s eased the crushing caseloads for workers investigating reports of child abuse. NJTV News Correspondent Briana Vannozzi spoke with DCF Commissioner Allison Blake.
Vannozzi: How will your department maintain this progress?
Blake: We have built some systems inside the department where we’re able to do our own monitoring and measure our performance through a collection of different types of data. So we’re slowing working towards a time when the monitor will step back and we will have a, kind of a public accountability framework in place.
Vannozzi: What has been the role of the federal monitor? How integral has that been?
Blake: Oh the monitor has been a great resource to us. The monitor is an expert in child welfare so she, in addition to measuring practice, has been for the last seven years, with me at least, really engaged in a discussion about different types of technical assistance, providing input about strategies to address areas where we’re looking to make progress or opportunities for change, things like that.
Vannozzi: Overall, this report had highlighted that 20 of 36 goals were met. This has been many, many years in the works. But what are those other goals that still need work?
Blake: So we’re really in an extraordinary place. The progress that has been made is really quite remarkable and I just feel that I need to point out how proud I am of all the staff at the Department of Children and Families. And quite honestly, how proud the judge is, the federal court judge who’s handling this case. In fact, when we were in court two weeks ago, he took the time in the courtroom to say that he is so pleased with the progress that’s been made that he believes New Jersey’s on the threshold of being a national model for…
Vannozzi: He called it a model for the entire system.
Blake: He did, yes.
Vannozzi: So how much of that has to do with structural reform? Is there a difference in child protection when this was under Human Services is what we all refer to as DYFS?
Blake: So I think it’s many different things. Certainly some of it has to do with the structural reform, carving it out and creating a role for the head of the agency, a commissioner to have a seat at the governor’s table and to be part of discussions around budgeting and policy and planning. Certainly that elevates the needs of children and families in the state, so I think that’s made a big difference. But I think that in large part, the contrast, what is different today is really that this is a very professionalized workforce that receives a significant amount of training every year. Their competencies are really quite improved and the resources that are available to support children and families in the state today are much greater than they were when the lawsuit was first settled.
Vannozzi: At the center of this, at the peak of the lawsuit, some of these social workers had caseloads that were 75, 85 each?
Blake: They did. And we were really asking them to do far more than was possible given the size of those caseloads. And so one of the things that we talked about in court was that I think one of the biggest milestones is that we have now met all of the caseload requirements in the consent decree. And so today, our staff are working with no more than 12 families, which you can imagine is quite a contrast. That really allows them the time to get to know families, to do better quality investigations, but to really plan and partnership with families around meeting their needs and the needs of their children and keeping their children safe.
Vannozzi: The report though did give a little scrutiny to the quality of these investigations not meeting all of the minimum standards. Are your caseworkers effectively engaging with the problems of these families?
Blake: They are. So there are several quality measures that we’re very focused on right now and the reports, there’s a delay on the reports when they get released. And so the report that we were just in court for was for a period that ended last summer. And we’ll be having another report that will be issued this summer in probably late June or July I expect to be in court. Already we’re seeing progress on many of those quality measures that we were discussing in court. So I can tell you that we’re seeing that progress start to happen. And in large part it’s because the staff had the time to really focus on their work with children and families.
Vannozzi: How did you reduce that workload? Was it outsourced? Are you using more community-based programs?
Blake: No. So when the lawsuit was first settled and the Department of Children and Families was created, there was an investment to hire several hundred additional staff so that we could increase the number of caseworkers, social workers available to work with families, but also so that we could increase the number of supervisors available to provide support to our caseworkers who were working with families.
Vannozzi: I want to get to, quickly, foster care. There was mixed progress as far as children who are as we say aging out of the system.
Vannozzi: What are you doing to help those teenagers who need to either have work, college in place? What’s being done for them?
Blake: So I’ll say to you, I don’t want to give anything away, but the next report I think will demonstrate that we’ve made great progress there. We’ve done a lot of work around partnering with the state Department of Community Affairs. We now have housing opportunities available for youth who are aging out who need housing. That includes wraparound services to support them in developing their life skills so that they don’t become homeless. But also, just as important, so that they can complete their education and be prepared to get jobs.
Vannozzi: A lot more to come.
Blake: A lot more to come.