Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System: The New Jersey Natural Parent Support Program . 1.1 State information


The New Jersey child welfare system is state operated and state administered. The Department of Human Services' Division of Youth and Family Services is responsible for administering social services to children and families. DYFS operates 32 district offices (in 21 counties) and six adoption resource centers, which are supervised by five regional offices. DYFS provides a foundation of services to clients, including investigations and maintaining responsibility and decision making for foster care cases. Although DYFS provides direct services, specialized and enhanced services for foster care and reunification may be provided by private agencies through state contracts. As of June 30, 1999, there were 6,439 children in foster homes statewide and an additional 2,265 in other out-of-home placements.(2) At any given time in a year, about 9,500 children are in out-of-home placement in the state.

Prompted by widespread concerns about the child welfare system in New Jersey, the Governor convened a blue ribbon panel on Child Protection Services in 1997 to review the status of the child welfare system. A final report was issued by the panel in 1998. The panel report made 382 recommendations to improve DYFS and the delivery of family and children services in New Jersey. In response to the Report of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel, other state initiatives, and recently enacted Federal legislation, DYFS engaged its staff and community representatives in an effort to implement a Strategic Plan. The plan has six goals that include: 1) to reform New Jersey's foster care system, 2) improve safety and expedite permanency for children, 3) improve the quality and accountability of DYFS direct service and administrative operations, 4) enhance the professionalism of the child welfare workforce, 5) improve case assessment and planning for children and families, and 6) strengthen New Jersey's system of prevention services for at-risk children and families.(3)

The Division also began implementation of a new Foster Care Reform and Permanency Initiative in 1999 as an initiative under then Governor Christie Todd Whitman. This initiative is aimed at reforming New Jersey's foster care system to ensure safety and expedited permanency for children in foster care. The goals of the initiative include increasing foster parent recruitment and training, increasing board reimbursement to foster parents, a new certification system for foster homes, increasing services to birth parents and foster children, expansion of legal services, and increasing staff to expedite permanency and implement concurrent planning on a statewide basis. Implementation began in FY 1999. The annualized funding for the program is approximately $22 million.(4) With the additional funding, the state began additional contracting with private, nonprofit agencies in the community to expand services to enhance foster care operations and move children through the system more quickly.

Prior to 1998, foster care units were located in district offices with child protection services, and foster care competed for resources with other DYFS services such as intake and protection. Because many of the resources and energies of the agency fell to protection and safety, foster care had difficulty competing for resources. As part of the foster care system reforms, the state separated the foster care units from other child protection units and began regionalizing the foster care units.

Another current impact on child welfare in New Jersey is the Children's Rights lawsuit. Children's Rights, Inc. filed a class action suit (Charlie & Nadine H. v. Whitman) in the State of New Jersey in August 1999, accusing the child welfare system of being poorly managed, overburdened, and underfunded. On behalf of children affected by the New Jersey DYFS, the suit alleged violations of the children's constitutional rights and charged that DYFS had failed to implement recommendations by the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel to protect children and provide for their welfare. On January 27, 2000, a court dismissed all but two claims of the lawsuit.(5) The state has reiterated its continued effort to follow through with the strategic plan to improve the child welfare system regardless of the lawsuit. According to the state administrator we spoke to, there has been very little, if any, effect from the lawsuit on the delivery of foster care services.

Permanency options in the state (in order of preference) are: reunification, family placement (may include close family members, relative, close family friend, or godparent), adoption (can include selected adoption and foster care adoption), independent living, and long-term foster care with custody (although they are reconsidering the long-term foster care option because ASFA does not recognize this as a viable option).

New Jersey adopted ASFA guidelines through state legislation in March 1999. Prior to ASFA, the state's permanency timelines allowed for a looser schedule for obtaining permanency for a child. Caseworkers would focus on reunification, but not in planning ahead for cases, and as a result, cases dragged along in the foster care system and the process for timely permanency was not closely scrutinized. The strategic plan requires statewide implementation of the concurrent planning model, and DYFS has moved from sequential case planning to a dual-track planning system.

The DYFS offices are very sensitive to ASFA timelines and provision of services. The DYFS Central Region Planner said that since ASFA, that concurrent planning is practiced with all cases except in some cases with older children, for instance teens in residential placement. In these cases, concurrent planning, or the practice of working on reunification while at the same time moving the case towards adoption, is generally not practiced. Each time a case is reviewed, concurrent planning on the case and the progress or lack of progress made toward a goal of permanency are always given serious consideration.

When a child enters placement, one of the first assessments often made of the family is for substance abuse. Substance abuse evaluations are conducted by certified alcohol and drug abuse counselors available at each of the DYFS district offices. In addition, DYFS conducts broader family assessments. The assessments are used to guide service delivery to parents and children. Based on the family assessment, counseling and therapy services, in-home treatment services, and visitation are offered to families as part of traditional reunification services.

At the time that a case plan is made for an out-of-home case, DYFS requires parents to enter into informed consent contracts if the placement is "voluntary" in nature.(6) The contracts, drawn up with parents when their children are placed in foster care, advise parents of ASFA time limits and the requirements that must be met to have their child returned. In most cases, the informed consent can only lasts 6 months, at which time it is determined whether a goal of reunification is feasible or should be changed. If the parent is not making an effort to work toward reunification or making progress toward the set goals, then the case goal may be changed to adoption. If the child remains in care beyond the 6-month time period, the placement becomes court ordered.

For the purpose of studying the NPSP, we focused on the program serving the DYFS central region. The central region consists of five counties: Hunterdon, Mercer, Monmouth, Ocean, and Somerset. The counties in this region are demographically diverse. Three of the five counties are suburban with some urban areas and contain large populations, while two counties are smaller in population. At the time of this report, the central region had approximately 537 children in foster care. Of those children in care, 52 percent were African-American; 38 percent Caucasian; 5 percent Hispanic; and 5 percent were of other ethnic backgrounds.

Each county in the region has a DYFS district office that handles child welfare cases.(7) Each district office provides child welfare and protective services, and each has intake and investigative units. All new cases coming into DYFS come through those district office intake units. If a child is placed, the case would be assigned from intake to the permanency unit of the district office. This process may vary by county, because some of the district offices do not have formal "permanency," units which are generally found in the larger counties.