In 2003, a harrowing case of a seven-year-old, Faheem Williams, found dead and his brothers found neglected and malnourished in a Newark home sparked a flame that fueled an ongoing lawsuit and began a reform for child welfare in New Jersey. This heartbreaking story of abuse rang so loud, it caught the attention of then Governor James E. McGreevey who mandated the state to go through an extensive review of Division of Youth and Family Services’ (DYFS) practices. Later that year was another case involving four brothers in Collingswood New Jersey who, after a history of being in foster care, were adopted. They were later found to be highly malnourished and neglected by their adoptive parents. The children were removed from their home and the surviving adoptive mother was sent to prison.
Children’s Rights, a national advocacy group whose goal is to reform failing child welfare systems, aggressively pursued New Jersey to improve its practices. A lawsuit that was initially launched in 1999 became intensified after the highly publicized death of Williams was discovered. This was a catalyst that brought about an agreement of reform for the New Jersey Child Welfare System. This article will discuss New Jersey’s response to the agreement and the role Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS) played in the reform.
The New Jersey Child Welfare Reform and FAFS’ Reaction –Reform Requirements
Steps toward the reform began in 2003 with a thorough investigation and comb-through of DYFS’ procedures. In 2006, the Office of Children’s Services in the Department of Human Services published a manual entitled: New Jersey Child Welfare Reform: Focusing on the Fundamentals. In the manual, it highlighted requirements in response to the reform settlement agreement. The manual acknowledged the fact that New Jersey had been experiencing “historically high numbers of child abuse and neglect investigations.” The manual also noted that the safety of children was reliant upon having enough frontline intake staff to thoroughly investigate allegations of abuse, as well as enough permanency staff to effectively monitor children and provide the support children in foster care need. The reform also required preventative services to be offered to families with the hope of keeping children in their biological homes; it was believed this would lower dependence on hospitals, institutions and foster care. Permanency for New Jersey’s children was another mandate of the reform. Through a continued investment in services like flex funds, treatment for addiction and reunification counseling, it was also believed the goal of permanency could be achieved. For cases where children could not be returned to their homes, a strong and properly staffed adoption program was to be implemented, according to the agreement. The last of the major requirements was the need to improve administrative functions within the agency in order to advance the other fundamentals of safety, well-being and permanency.
In another manual created by the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) entitled: Effecting Change: Implementing the DCF Case Practice Model, it stated, “The core of child welfare reform in New Jersey is to build a culture in our agency, together with our stakeholders, and the community, which allows us to support and partner with our children and families in achieving their full potential.” The manual continued to outline what was necessary in achieving this culture and broke down the implementation of the reform requirements. With the organization fully functioning at all levels with strong leadership, ambitious training, keeping cases at a manageable number, developing services and keeping the budget transparent, it would significantly lower the number of cases from falling through the cracks and improve overall services to the children and families of New Jersey.
The New Jersey Child Welfare Reform -A Welcomed Partnership with FAFS
Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS) was integral in helping DYFS meet the various mandates that were required by the reform agreement. They joined the Child Welfare Reform task force and various work groups laboring tirelessly with the leadership in New Jersey. FAFS offered the voice of foster parents, and they were essential in giving another viewpoint; that viewpoint brought a reminder that foster parents’ homes were just that – homes. In essence, being a foster parent is not a job but a life that was chosen to bring hope and change for the better of children in care. The alliance labored together to help make recommendations for the settlement agreement so it could meet the demands of the lawsuit and ensure the safety and well-being of foster children.
Prior to the reform, foster parents only needed to be certified to provide care. Since the reform, it is now required that each home has a license for foster care or adoption. FAFS supported licensing to help assure a high standard for every foster home. In conjunction with becoming licensed, each home has to maintain its licensure by taking in-service training to ensure it is meeting the standards of caring for children. Thankfully, FAFS had always been prepared to offer training for foster parents, making them poised to help families fulfill licensing requirements. When the demand came, there was a variety of courses and trainings available that catered to the specific needs of foster parents. FAFS also had the central system in place to take inquiries over the phone, which helped tremendously with the influx of families that were recruited to open their hearts and homes to children in need. FAFS also played a very important role and advocated for funds that would contribute to the increasing and training of DYFS staff. With the right tools in place, FAFS believed foster parents would be able to better advocate and be that essential help to their children in care.
The New Jersey Child Welfare Reform – Bringing FAFS to the Table
Problems can be seen as an opportunity to bring change for the better. While the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P), formerly known as DYFS, continue to strive toward a better system of care for New Jersey’s children, FAFS continues to be an ally. The initial agreement has had modifications, but the partnership that was strategically forged and made stronger through adversity remains resilient as the work for achieving reform carries on.