Only about 10 percent of all child abuse or neglect complaints made in New Jersey in 2012 were found to be valid, compared with the national average of about 18 percent, according to state and national data.
Children’s advocates said while the Department of Children and Families, or DCF has made great strides in improving investigations, they are still concerned by the low rate of reports that are substantiated.
“This has been the case for several years,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, or ACNJ. “It’s hard to draw any conclusions, but it raises alarms.”
DCF spokesman Ernest Landante said in an email that states develop and use varying criteria to refer a child abuse and neglect allegation for investigation and varying definitions to substantiate child abuse and neglect. With each state using different standards for both initiating investigations and substantiating abuse or neglect, comparing substantiation rates across states does not produce meaningful information.
ACNJ has been concerned about the issue for almost a decade, noting in a report that in 2005 New Jersey sustained 17 percent of complaints, but by 2009 it had dropped to 10 percent, where it has remained.
Zalkind said the low substantiation rate frustrates the people required to report suspected cases, including teachers, medical workers and law enforcement.
“We’d hear from them saying ‘What’s the point of reporting if it’s never upheld?’” Zalkind said. “When a teacher or someone makes a call, they don’t do it lightly.”
The DCF “Child Abuse and Neglect Reports and Substantiations” data from 2012, the most recent year available, show that the Division of Child Protection and Permanency received complaints involving 92,924 children that year. Most complaints, more than 61,000, were for neglect.
Complaints involving 9,250 children were substantiated, with 74 percent of them involving neglect. Investigators also substantiated that 739 children had been physically abused, 661 were sexually abused and 967 children had experienced multiple types of abuse.
Almost half of all of the substantiated reports, more than 4,400 involved children under the age of 5.
Robin Hernandez-Mekonnen, an assistant professor of social work in the Child Welfare Education Institute at Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township, said while there are federal guidelines that define neglect and abuse, each state adapts them to their own regulations so it is hard to compare results. She said while most reports in New Jersey involve neglect, Pennsylvania does not include neglect in their data.
Hernandez-Mekonnen worked with the nonprofit group Children’s Rights on a 1999 child welfare class-action suit, Charlie and Nadine H. v. Christie, that resulted in a state settlement in 2006 that formed the Department of Children and Families in New Jersey. She has been active in the state reform effort and said funding for improvement has been fairly stable.
But after eight years the state still has a way to go to meet the settlement criteria. A July report by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, which is monitoring the settlement, said there have been some noteworthy accomplishments, but goals have not been met. The report notes that there is strong investigative practice and staff is well-trained. But caseloads remain higher than acceptable.
From the period April through December 2013, only 63 percent of all investigations were completed within 60 days. The target is 98 percent. Of those investigations, 78 percent were of acceptable quality.
At a July 17 hearing on the report, DCF Commissioner Allison Blake testified that they have made dramatic strides in improving services for children and families. She also proposed a “fresh look” at the modified settlement agreement. She said they are troubled by the monitor’s 78 percent figure for quality, noting that reviewers agreed or partially agreed with the investigators finding 95 percent of the time.
Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, issued a statement saying that New Jersey, which at one point was becoming one of the premier child welfare systems in the nation, has recently seen slower progress. She noted that 8.5 percent of children reunified with their parents are the victims of maltreatment within a year, much higher than the 4.8 percent target rate.
Hernandez-Mekonnen said investigating complaints is very sensitive. When she reads the state definition of child abuse and neglect to her social work students they say that it is just very basic and that their actual practice is much more fine-tuned.
She cited one example of disciplining a child: Open-handed discipline, or spanking, would typically not be abuse, but using an object to spank would be, yet not all social workers would agree that using a belt for discipline is abuse.
Zalkind said a major concern is repeat cases when a complaint was not substantiated, and then the same child winds up in the system again.
“You have to wonder how was the first investigation handled?” she asked. “What did they miss? But there is not real data on repeats within a family.”
Hernandez-Mekonnon teaches a trauma class and said a many as a third of all children have had some contact with DCF before, and in many cases children in the child welfare system have parents who were also in the system.
She said new caseworkers often don’t confer with previous caseworkers, though almost 90 percent of caseworkers will review a child’s history.
“Still, 11 out of 100 children with a history were not detected,” she said.
ACNJ’s research found that between 2004 and 2008 the number of children found to be abused or neglected six months after an unfounded report rose 50 percent.
In 2013 the state moved from a two-tier system that found a case either substantiated or unsubstantiated, to a four-tier system with more nuance.
Zalkind said there were concerns that with just two criteria, social workers would err on the side of caution since a substantiated case could also lead to criminal charges. But giving more choices could also lead to fewer substantiated cases. State data for 2013 is not yet available.
Zalkind said while bad parenting may not rise to the level of abuse or neglect, the low rate of confirmed cases should get more scrutiny.
“It has to be an ongoing conversation or we will get complacent,” she said.
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