Report Finds Flaws in Inquiries On Foster Abuse in New Jersey

from: The New York Times


New Jersey's child welfare agency has shown a ''routine failure'' to adequately investigate allegations of abuse and neglect in foster homes and state-run institutions, leaving thousands of children under its care at risk of harm, a study has found.

In a withering report that examined 129 investigations conducted in recent years, researchers from the University of Maryland found that one-quarter of the state's inquiries had been seriously mishandled.

In more than half the cases, the investigations were not completed within the required two months. In only two cases did investigators bother to check whether the foster parents accused of abuse had criminal records.

In about 20 percent of the cases, the researchers found, investigators for the state agency, the Division of Youth and Family Services, failed to determine that children had been abused and were at risk, despite ample evidence that anyone with ''reasonable professional judgment'' would have seen.

As a result, the researchers concluded, ''no assurances can be given'' that any child in the state-monitored foster homes or institutions is actually safe.

The review of abuse investigations, released publicly yesterday, was commissioned by Children's Rights Inc., a nonprofit children's advocacy group based in Manhattan, which has sued the State of New Jersey over the quality of its foster care system. The state and Children's Rights are trying to negotiate a settlement.

Gov. James E. McGreevey has already acknowledged that the state's child welfare system is deeply troubled, and he has initiated what he has called major reforms. The changes follow the death of Faheem Williams, 7, whose body was found in a Newark basement in January after child welfare investigators had closed his case file.

This week, Mr. McGreevey announced that he would move the abuse investigations unit out of the Division of Youth and Family Services and fold it into the new Office of Program Integrity and Accountability. That office will report directly to the commissioner of human services, Gwendolyn L. Harris, who oversees the child welfare agency.

But Marcia Robinson Lowry, the executive director of Children's Rights, said the report revealed a level of dysfunction so deep that simply moving investigations out of the division would not solve the problem.

''Even assuming they are more independent,'' she said, 'this is a system so dangerous at its core that doing better investigations on how children are being abused will not keep them from being abused.''

Colleen Maguire, the special deputy commissioner who has been appointed to help overhaul DYFS, said she could argue with aspects of the report, but accepted that the agency had not done an acceptable job investigating complaints over the years.

''We could dispute this line by line, but the picture that is painted is not a good one,'' she said. Ms. Maguire cited changes in licensing standards that the agency carried out in April 2002 that allowed it to close 100 foster homes it had found substandard.

The analysis of the state's abuse investigations, which was conducted by professors and others at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, was released on the same day that the state's own child welfare officials made public their stark findings about what was needed to reform the system.

In a report prepared by the child welfare agency's Staffing and Outcomes Review Panel, officials said the state would have to spend $105 million during the next three years to hire enough caseworkers to meet the standards set by the Child Welfare League of America, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington that recommends standards. The panel estimated that more than 1,000 new staff members would be needed.

The panel also suggested that $81 million more be spent to add drug treatment programs and other services for troubled families.

''It is fairly clear that this is a system that is failing and needs substantial resources,'' said Cecilia Zalkind, the executive director of the Association for Children of New Jersey, who sat on the panel.

A spokesman for Mr. McGreevey, Micah Rasmussen, said the panel's recommendations would be part of the governor's budget discussions with the Legislature. The agency ''has been neglected for too long, but we are getting this house in order,'' Mr. Rasmussen said.

He said that before yesterday's announcement, the governor had allocated an additional $20 million in his proposed budget for other changes at the child welfare agency. ''The governor is irrevocably dedicated to greater accountability,'' Mr. Rasmussen said.

The University of Maryland study examined 129 cases handled by the investigations unit from 1999 to 2002. A nine-member research team at the social work school and the Institute for Human Services Policy reviewed the case files, which involved 195 children from both rural and urban settings around New Jersey.

The researchers said they had used a random sampling method that reduced errors and made it likely that their findings would represent the same results if they had examined every investigation by the unit during the four-year period that they reviewed.

The 42-page study dissects the agency's investigation unit, commonly known by its initials, I.A.I.U. That unit performs what is widely regarded to be the most critical work in child protection: quickly and accurately assessing complaints of abuse and levels of risk.

The Maryland researchers found a pattern of often shoddy, incomplete investigations, in which officials failed to interview crucial witnesses or to thoroughly check the personal histories of those accused of abuse and neglect. Nearly a quarter of those foster parents whom the agency did check on turned out to have prior allegations of abuse and neglect, and roughly half of those allegations had been substantiated, and yet even those parents were often allowed to keep the children in their homes.

''I.A.I.U. was routinely noted to conduct overly legalistic and narrow investigations, frequently failing to collect, integrate and critically analyze the available information with anything approaching reasonable professional judgment,'' wrote the researchers, who were led by Diane DePanfilis.

Even when presented with what seemed to be clear-cut examples of abuse, the unit often fell short, researchers found. In one case, the they found, an allegation of abuse was unsubstantiated even though a foster mother with two previous substantiated allegations of abuse had admitted to investigators that she had struck a child with a belt, leaving a four-inch mark on the child's face.

In more than a handful of instances, the researchers discovered that there was no indication that an investigation of any kind had been done after allegations of abuse or neglect were received.

''Based on the results of this review,'' the report said, ''immediate action must be taken to protect these children.''


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