Advocates question drop in child-abuse complaints
by Susan K. Livio/The Star-Ledger
The percentage of proven child abuse and neglect cases in foster homes, schools, day care centers and other group settings fell to an all-time low last year, but state officials and child advocates are not sure if that is good news.
The state unit that pursues allegations of harm to children that occurs outside their family homes corroborated 3 percent of allegations last year -- a sharp drop from just two years earlier, when it proved 11.4 percent. The unit has received an average of 3,200 complaints a year.
The rates first slipped in 2006, after the state tightened rules on how the Institutional Abuse Investigations Unit determines whether an allegation of harm to children has merit.
State officials say the ongoing $1 billion overhaul of the child welfare system has produced safer foster homes and a policy to rely less on detention centers and shelters.
But child advocates worry that the percentages are lower because allegations aren't getting the attention they deserve -- and that this could force children to spend all or part of their days in dangerous places.
"Maybe they have set the bar high, to where it's possible they are screening out cases," said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Association for Children of New Jersey.
Zalkind said the state owes it to these children -- particularly the 9,700 kids the state removed from their families and put in foster care -- to quickly figure out what's going on. "They ... require a higher standard of safety," Zalkind said.
Kate Bernyk, spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families, said top officials are aware of the trend and are watching it closely. "This is a matter that has the attention of the commissioner," she said.
Acting Child Advocate Ronald Chen said his staff is conducting an analysis of the unit and the rule changes. The report is due this fall.
In a July report about the state's child abuse hotline, the federal court monitor overseeing the state's reforms uncovered some concerns about the unit.
When a tipster called to complain that the manager of a children's residential program refused to replace mattresses infested with bedbugs, the hotline worker and a unit supervisor sent the call to the licensing inspector's office instead of opening an investigation into possible neglect. The monitor called that a mistake.
Hotline workers in a focus group also told the monitor that some staffers in the unit prefer to be consulted before a complaint reaches them so they can challenge it and "request the report to be downgraded," according to the report by monitor Judith Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.
"One of the issues that got raised in that report is whether everything that should be going to (the unit) is," Meltzer said.
Her latest reform report card applauded the unit for completing the majority of its investigations within the state standard of 60 days. The next report will focus on its performance.
The unit was a prime target of a class-action lawsuit, filed by the national advocacy group Children's Rights of New York, that eventually prompted the widespread reform of the child welfare system.
A professor hired by the group found "professionally unreasonable" decision-making allowed children to remain in potentially harmful places. In 2003, Children's Rights called a "substantiation rate" of 12 percent troublingly low.
Meltzer admits she doesn't know what to make of the plummeting rate of confirmed abuse cases. "It could mean four years ago, they were inappropriately substantiating more cases than they should have been. Maybe they got it right now," she said.
Jesse Moskowitz, retired assistant director of the Division of Youth and Family Services, disagrees. In his 18 years at DYFS during the 1980s and 1990s, the substantiation rate held steady at 10 to 12 percent a year.
"They didn't change the definition of a substantiated case, so the substantiation rate should be the same," said Moskowitz.
Bernyk said several key rule changes -- and reducing how many cases are assigned to each investigator -- had an impact on the rates.
"Giving them a manageable caseload and giving them a clear definition of what they are investigating -- all that goes into the equation," she said.
Children and Families spokeswoman Mary Helen Cervantes said investigators now look at the entire file when they reach a finding. "This includes ... evidence as well as the history, including unfounded allegations of the alleged perpetrator and the facility," she said.
In 2005, the child welfare agency said investigators could only determine whether an allegation was substantiated or unfounded. Before that, if they found evidence that something was amiss, but not enough to prove harm, it could be deemed "unsubstantiated with concerns."
"People were afraid to make a decision one way or another," said Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children's Rights. "We wanted them to do an investigation until they can say yes or no."
Moskowitz, however, said giving investigators an option of saying they had concerns gave them a reason to follow up on a case. "That seems to be lost right now," he said.
Bernyk said the unit now sends more complaints to licensing inspectors who can work with foster homes, group homes or day care centers to correct problems.
"Before, investigators were likely to substantiate (an allegation) for some matters like a filthy home that didn't rise to the level of abuse or neglect," Bernyk said.
The state also added a layer of supervisors to double-check findings when a case is substantiated. This was done, Bernyk said, because many cases were overturned on appeal for lack of evidence.
Zalkind said she's troubled by the state's decision to assign a supervisory team to examine only cases in which investigators concluded that the allegation was true.
"You are having a team second-guess what the investigator's recommendation was?" she said. "Unless the team is going out to the site of the investigation, I have some concerns about that."