STATEWIDE COURT ORDER SETTING OUTCOMES AND COMPLIANCE LEVELS FOR THE NEW JERSEY CHILD-WELFARE SYSTEM PROGRESSES TO NEXT PHASE
Charlie and Nadine H. v. Christie, Case No. 2:99-cv-03678-SRC-CLW
A federal-court lawsuit against the child-welfare system in New Jersey that was in chaos in 1999 has now entered a new phase, reflecting the progress that has been made as the child-welfare system continues a lengthy and detailed reform process under the supervision of the federal court. Attorneys for the state and for the plaintiff foster children in Charlie and Nadine H. v. Christie submitted a modified settlement agreement to the federal court for approval before Judge Stanley Chesler in federal court in Newark on Wednesday, the third version of a system-wide reform plan first entered by the court during the administration of Governor James McGreevey.
The first version of the settlement was entered after the lawsuit was settled in 2003 and then revised in 2006 when early plans for reform floundered and a contempt motion was filed. A Modified Settlement Agreement was entered in 2006, creating a process for making improvements in the child-welfare system after first engaging in substantial restructuring, including the creation of a cabinet-level children’s agency. The new revised Settlement Agreement, called the Sustainability and Exit Plan (Second Modified Settlement Agreement) and submitted to the Court on Wednesday, recognizes that the state has moved farther along in the reform process.
The new agreement is divided into several sections, all of which remain enforceable in federal court, under the jurisdiction of Judge Chesler, and with continuing monitoring and reporting by the long-time court monitor Judith Meltzer and the Center for the Study of Social Policy.
It contains the basic principles that set the guidelines for the New Jersey foster care system, “Principles of the Sustainability and Exit Plan,” and “Foundational Elements,” which contain more specifics about the necessary elements that must be present in the New Jersey child welfare system and which are also enforceable by the federal court.
In addition, the newly revised agreement divides specific requirements, with measurable standards that must be achieved, into two categories: 1) those requirements for which the state has already met the compliance standard, and which the state must sustain at the level required in the agreement (“To Be Maintained”), and 2) those requirements for which the state has not yet achieved the standard agreed to by the parties and approved by the court, in the category designated “To Be Achieved.” Thus, for example, the state still has not met the numerical compliance standards in a variety of measures, including completing timely investigations of child abuse and neglect reports and ensuring that they are of sufficient quality and developing timely case plans and ensuring that a sufficient percentage of the case plans are of sufficient quality.
At the point at which the state can demonstrate that it has been in compliance with all of the agreement’s requirements for a continuous 12-month period, it can ask the Court to be released from court oversight. However, it must continue to report compliance data, and if performance declines during the following 6-month period, the Court can reinstate jurisdiction.
“The state has worked long and hard to achieve this level of performance,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, the executive director of A Better Childhood, who has been lead counsel for plaintiff children since the lawsuit was filed. “They still have much work to do to be released from the oversight of the Court, and they need to focus on some key problems, but they are heading in the right direction. This is a very different system from the one in which this lawsuit was filed, and New Jersey’s children are benefitting from its many improvements.”
A Better Childhood is a national nonprofit advocacy organization that uses the courts to reform dysfunctional child welfare systems around the country. Marcia Robinson Lowry, A Better Childhood’s executive director, has been lead counsel in the Charlie and Nadine H. v. Christie lawsuit since the case was filed in 1999.