Evaluation of Family Preservation and Reunification Programs: Final Report - Volume One. 4.5.3 Current Policy Context

12/01/2002

Several statewide changes have occurred since random assignment began in November 1996. These were the new FPS computer system, changes in administration, the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection Services, statewide DYFS strategy planning, the federal adoption initiative, and welfare reform.

New Computer System Connecting DYFS and FPS Programs. Problems in communication between public and private agencies can limit effectiveness of child welfare services. One of the major initiatives mentioned by state FPS administrators is the linkage of the 13 FPS agencies (serving 21 counties) with each other and the DYFS District and Regional offices. The prototype was scheduled to be in place in June 1997. The system will allow electronic exchange of referral and case information and more intensive program monitoring.

The FPS administrator reports that the system, now called the Electronic Case File System, was actually implemented in 1998 with most components activated. Staff at FPS programs were trained in spring 1998, and all programs began using electronic versions of forms at that time. There has been a delay in the communication component between the FPS and DYFS offices, while Internet security issues are resolved.

Change in Administration. Several leadership changes occurred during the implementation of the experiment. Several months after random assignment began, the Director of DYFS left office. In June 1997, the Director of the Technical Support Unit, changed. In September 1997, the Administrator of the DYFS Office of Case Practice, Screening and Emergency Response (OCPSER), changed positions.

The full impact of the change in leadership on the experiment is not discernible, however two effects can be identified. First, the approval of exceptions and violations were case-by-case determinations made by the TSU Director or the Administrator of OCPSER. Their threshold for approving an exception or violation was based on case specifics, but also reflected interpretation of county-specific practice and policy, as well as state policy and politics. One would expect that different individuals have different thresholds for what is extremely high risk. At a briefing with several counties, one screener requested that the exception criteria be clarified, claiming it had changed as a result of the personnel changes.

Secondly, a new agreement with the study was made in regard to the length of the random assignment period. It was hoped that the original target of 500 cases would be reached in a one-year period of random assignment. The target was not reached in that time and shortly after the transition, a meeting was requested by DYFS administrators and FPS contractors to discuss the conclusion of the random assignment period. The new administrators requested that random assignment end by February 28, 1998, instead of continuing random assignment until a specified sample size was reached. A net sample size of 442 cases was achieved by the designated end date.

Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection. State administrators emphasized the importance of the Governor in defining the direction and priority for DYFS. In January 1997, Governor Whitman created the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Children Services (BRP) to review the status of the child welfare system in general and the performance of DYFS, in particular. A final report was issued in February 1998, highlighting strengths and weaknesses of the child welfare system and recommendations for every component of DYFS and other components of the broader statewide system of services for families and children. The report was very critical of DYFS, stating that resources had fallen behind need, that staff morale was low, and that the system was in a state of crisis.

The values included in the Panel Report include emphasis on child protection. As stated in a discussion of "Child Protection vs. Family Preservation":

Child protection is of paramount value. When there is a conflict between the safety of a child and a family's right to privacy and autonomy, the child's safety overrides all other considerations. Any ambiguity regarding the safety of a child will be resolved in favor of eliminating the source of harm or separating the child from it. This may include the removal of a child from his/her family. While it asserts that child safety is the paramount value, the Panel affirms the need to support families. (44)

Additional observations made by the panel are relevant to FPS targeting and effectiveness. The Panel found that standards for placement were inconsistent across districts. It observed that availability of resources to serve families were often used in deciding whether to place a child. In particular it was concerned that the availability of foster homes in sufficient numbers were influencing workers' decisions to place or use family services. This observation was noted also in our briefing sessions with workers in the seven experimental sites.

The Panel was critical of the state's continuum of family support and preservation services. It observed that the state uses most of its in-home dollars in the state-run FPS Program. It found the FPS model lacking in flexibility stating:

Unfortunately, the program contains explicit limitations, offering very intensive services over a very short time period of four to eight weeks. This program has never received sufficient resources to meet the demand for services. But even more critically, it is too limited in terms of the minimum and maximum amount of time a worker can devote to a family. Most families have multiple long-term problems that cannot be addressed within one or two months. In addition, some families are unable to use such an intense approach and find it too intrusive. (45)

The Panel recommended that the FPS program be evaluated to determine what kind of cases it serves best and that existing slots be targeted to that type of case. In addition, the resources of the program should be expanded to fit the full continuum of preservation needs. This issue remains. The evaluation team heard comments from workers and administrators in several counties reiterating the dilemma that a very specific Homebuilders model for placement prevention as the only DYFS funded resource was being stretched by workers and courts to fill the whole continuum of need.

Statewide DYFS Strategic Planning. In response to the Panel Report and need to plan for compliance with new Federal ASFA legislation, DYFS implemented a strategic planning process with DYFS staff and its community of service providers. A report in response was produced in June 1998. The report was organized according to six strategic goals: reform New Jersey's foster care system; improve safety and expedite permanency for children; improve the quality and accountability of DYFS direct services and administrative operations; enhance the professionalism of the child welfare workforce; improve case assessment and planning for children and families; and strengthen New Jersey's system of prevention services for at-risk children and families.

The plan mentions FPS services specifically only in the section on foster care reform. In that section, the plan recommends the expansion of FPS to include more reunification services as an approach to reduce the length of stay and to increase the number of children who reach successful permanency. In prevention services the plan does call for the coordination of all prevention services, to identify gaps and develop recommendations to improve the continuum of services.

DYFS is considering more specific changes to the FPS program statewide. According to the administrator for family preservation services, many changes are expected, stemming from a philosophical shift from preventing placement to a broader emphasis on family functioning and child and family stability. While placement prevention and attention to cases involving imminent risk will still have priority, county workers will be able to refer cases at a lower standard of substantial risk. Assessment cases and reunification cases will be eligible, as well as adoptive families and family foster homes where there is a risk of replacement for a child to another foster home.

A contractual change in service units is also being considered. (46) Presently, an FPS program is expected to serve a contracted number of families with duration of intervention from four to eight weeks (an average of 4 ½ weeks per family). The standard for duration will be made more flexible to allow programs to serve families requiring shorter or longer periods. This will allow the flexibility to serve families in the broader eligibility categories described above.

Counties and local FPS programs will be given discretion to expand eligibility and standards for case practice. This will result in some movement away from the Homebuilders model that has guided the New Jersey program model since 1987. Planning for these changes and a new service manual continues to be in development.

Federal Adoption Project. In October 1996, New Jersey began an Adoption Opportunities Grant to implement concurrent planning with the expressed goal of expediting permanency outcomes for children in three counties: Union, Middlesex, and Essex Counties. As part of the state's permanency reform, the initiative developed a new program model known as fost-adopt. Fost-Adopt parents provide foster care, but also offer an adoption commitment if this becomes the child's long-term goal. In return, agencies provide intensive reunification services with the birth family, timely decision-making for the child and adoption planning for those children who remain in care for more than a year.

Welfare Reform. "WorkFirst New Jersey" is New Jersey's response to the federal welfare reform bill and the implementation of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). New Jersey passed the WorkFirst New Jersey Act effective March 1997. It is not yet certain how TANF will affect the child welfare system and the population it serves. There are several areas that might affect families. Persons seeking assistance are expected to engage in employment or work activity. It is not clear how this will affect families with children in regard to day care and the supervision of children. Secondly, there is a cumulative 60-month lifetime limit for the receipt of TANF for an individual. Next, of concern because of the high incidence of substance abuse among the child welfare population, individuals convicted of a felony involving the distribution, possession, or use of a controlled substance shall not be eligible for TANF. A person convicted of possession or use can be determined to be eligible only if they successfully complete a drug treatment program and remain drug free for a period of sixty days after completion of the program. Non-citizens who entered the country after August 22,1996 will be ineligible for TANF benefits.

One procedural change, which affects the FPS operation specifically, occurred in June 1997. Because TANF funding was converted into a federal block grant, the state no longer had to demonstrate eligibility for IV-A funding for FPS service. Workers previously had to have families sign an eligibility form prior to referral. The change simplified the referral process, requiring one fewer form. The state still required a visit within 72 hours of referral, but a signature was no longer needed to pursue the referral. (47) This eliminated a service barrier which DYFS workers had described during our interviews in participating counties. The full impact of WorkFirst on families must be monitored closely.

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