Charlie and Nadine H. v. Christie

Plaintiffs: 15 foster children, aged 17 months to 17 years old, representing the class of over 6,000 New Jersey foster children

Case # 2:99-cv-03678-SRC-CLW

About the New Jersey Foster Care System

  • This lawsuit, filed in 1999, against New Jersey’s child welfare system revealed a disorganized and dangerous system. New Jersey children regularly suffered from abuse, neglect, and harm at an alarmingly high rate while in state custody.
  • New Jersey’s deeply dysfunctional child protective system regularly failed to protect children. In one case, police accidentally discovered a child’s mummified body in a home where the state had failed to conduct an investigation. In another case, they found four starving children whose adoptive parents had kept them out of school. The child welfare staff had ignored the plight of these children and many others.
  • In 2003, as more and more horrifying facts about the state’s child welfare system came to light, New Jersey’s then-governor, Jim McGreevey, decided that a court-ordered settlement was preferable to trying to defend the case in court.
  • Reform efforts got off to a rocky start, and a contempt motion led to major changes in the administration and structure of the state’s child welfare system.
  • In 2006 and again in 2015, the state entered into significantly revised settlement agreements. The current settlement is called the Sustainability and Exit Plan (Second Modified Settlement Agreement). It remains enforceable in federal court and subject to the continuing monitoring and reporting by the longtime court monitor, Judith Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.
  • Today, as a result of this lawsuit, the New Jersey child welfare system is enormously different. The state has a cabinet-level child welfare agency, reporting directly to the governor. Funding has increased and has been sustained. The system has been completely restructured. The state has created, trained, and stabilized a higher quality workforce with reasonable caseloads and many other improvements are planned or underway.

Advocacy Goals

Marcia Lowry, A Better Childhood’s Executive Director, originally initiated this lawsuit when she led the nonprofit organization Children’s Rights. When Ms. Lowry founded ABC, she took the case with her, continuing her role as lead counsel for Plaintiffs in the lawsuit. ABC continues to monitor the case, ensuring course corrections as necessary, as the system moves toward meeting all the requirements of the latest settlement agreement. Because of ABC’s persistent pressure, the federal judge’s vigorous and skillful oversight, and the diligence of the court-appointed monitor, New Jersey’s child welfare system is now well on its way toward implementing the many court-mandated reforms. ABC continues to represent New Jersey’s children to ensure that they receive everything to which the court found them entitled.

Update

New Jersey is heading in the right direction. This child welfare system is very different from the one that existed when this lawsuit was filed, and New Jersey’s children are benefitting from the many improvements that have been put into place. Before the state can be released from the oversight of the court, it must, however, meet all standards set in the Sustainability and Exit Plan, the latest settlement agreement between the parties.

Pursuant to the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s latest monitoring report the state agency’s compliance levels have stagnated, and some measures have declined. In early 2018, the newly elected Democratic governor appointed a new commissioner, who appears eager to move the agency toward full compliance.

Plaintiffs

Here are three of our plaintiffs, using pseudonyms

At the time of the complaint, Charlie and Nadine H. were eleven and nine years old, respectively. They had been removed from their mother’s home because of abuse and neglect. Unfortunately, they also endured persistent abuse and neglect in foster homes. The Division of Youth and Family Services (DFYS) placed Charlie and Nadine with their stepmother, who suffered from medical and psychiatric problems and was not equipped to care for the children. The stepmother and her boyfriend abused the children, starved them, and left them unattended in a dangerous and filthy house. DYFS neglected to inspect the home or offer assistance to Charlie and Nadine’s stepmother, even when the Trenton Police Department made the agency aware of the abusive and deplorable living conditions, and planned for the stepmother to adopt the children. After she threatened to kill them, DYFS removed the children and placed them in a temporary emergency foster home, where they stayed for over a year.

Dennis M. and Denise R. were seven years old and eight years old, respectively, at the time of the complaint. For two years after DYFS began supervising the children, they lived with their neglectful grandparents. Finally, DYFS filed for custody and placed Dennis and Denise with their father, where they were physically abused and forced to commit crimes. DYFS’ investigation of the abuse was inadequate. After Dennis and Denise’s father was arrested for sexual assault, DYFS placed them in an inadequate emergency foster home. Although DYFS noted that the children needed a therapeutic foster home, it made no efforts to find them such a home. The children were emotionally disturbed and had learning disabilities, and their time in DYFS care perpetuated their emotional and behavioral problems.

At the time of the complaint, Ricardo O. was thirteen years old. Ricardo had been removed from his mother’s home, along with his four siblings, because his mother’s boyfriend sexually abused them. As a result of this abuse, Ricardo had developed mental health issues and was on antidepressants when DYFS took over his care. DYFS failed to place Ricardo in a specialized therapeutic foster care placement or to evaluate his needs. Instead, DYFS placed Ricardo in a home in which he was again sexually abused. Under DYFS’ supervision, Ricardo developed disturbing mental health issues and needed immediate treatment that DYFS did not provide. Ricardo was hospitalized three times because of dangerous behaviors, such as attempting to drink bleach and to electrocute himself, and throwing himself in front of a moving car. After cutting his penis with a knife, Ricardo was placed in a psychiatric treatment center. While DYFS was trying to find another, less restrictive placement for Ricardo, three older male youths in the treatment center sexually assaulted him yet again. At the time of the complaint, Ricardo still was suffering from the effects of the repeated sexual abuse and was not in a permanent placement. He had been diagnosed with PTSD, ADHD, impulse control disorder, depression, psychosis, and a learning disability.

Case Documents

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