Getting it right: How other states have fixed broken child welfare systems
For more than two decades, state-run child welfare agencies in Illinois and New Jersey have shared a daunting challenge as both states operated under federal consent decrees aimed at improving systems fraught with mismanagement and widespread failures that left children injured, sometimes to the point of death.
Later this year, New Jersey is expected to be dropped from the list of about a dozen states operating under agreements reached after years of litigation in federal courts. New Jersey’s counterparts at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services are publicly and regularly thrashed for a list of failures as agency lawyers work to resolve a lawsuit filed more than 30 years ago by the ACLU.
As New Jersey officials edge closer to court approval of a plan to end the 1999 lawsuit on behalf of youth in state custody, Illinois is “not even close” to resolving its legal woes, according to Heidi Dalenberg, the ACLU lawyer handling the lawsuit accusing the state of failing to provide services to youth in its care.
If New Jersey succeeds, it will join three other jurisdictions that recently ended consent decrees: Milwaukee County, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut. Child welfare experts acknowledge that meaningful reform often follows the chaos of dysfunction and years of litigation.
According to data compiled by the Casey Family Programs, 15 jurisdictions were operating under a consent decree in 2021, with 11 agreements in place for at least a decade and four having been in place for 25 to 30 years. Both sides agree to the terms of the decrees that remain in place until a judge is satisfied that changes have been made.
Martha Raimon, senior associate with the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the agency appointed as court monitor in New Jersey, likened reforms in that state to building a structure from the ground up.
“There are some building blocks that are critical, like having a case practice model from which you determine your principles and your values,” said Raimon. New models for how abuse and neglect cases are handled and reviewed are among “what we call foundational elements to the consent decree,” said Raimon.
New Jersey met performance targets last year of ensuring that 95% of state child welfare offices maintained a 5-to-1 ratio for workers to supervisors; wrapping up 95% of all abuse and neglect investigations within 90 days; and making sure 90% of intake staff had no more than a dozen open cases and fewer than eight new cases assigned per month.
The reduction of caseloads is tied to New Jersey’s commitment to keep as many children as possible with their families or relatives, a goal common to Illinois and many other states.
“That’s the most important thing about this change in course that I would say the nation is going through. It’s not a new idea, but there’s a recognition of things the advocates have been saying for years – to really look at ways in which children can remain in the home with services for their families,” said Raimon.
Consistent and stable leadership
Other changes emerged as New Jersey struggled to restore its stature as a model for child welfare.
Consistent and stable leadership — something Illinois lacks with its 19 directors since the federal lawsuit was filed — fosters a willingness to identify problems and implement new measures, said Raimon.
“I think stable leadership is very important, with the caveat that the stable leadership also has to be good leadership,” said the leader of New Jersey’s court monitoring team.
Illinois, once lauded as a leader in child welfare, saw its reputation begin to slip in the mid-1990s, according to the Dalenberg, as the state slashed spending for social services. The smaller budget left Illinois’ complex system with little coordination between agencies and a network difficult for families to navigate.
The state also failed to address extensive updates to the technology system used to compile and maintain records on thousands of child welfare cases in Illinois, said the ACLU lawyer.
“I defy you to find on the portal information a child’s current doctor providing that child’s treatment. The information is not easily accessible. The whole system is in crisis,” said Dalenberg.
In New Jersey, the state partnered with Rutgers University to create a data hub that tracks a wide range of child welfare statistics that are updated regularly for the public portal. Easy to decipher graphics track multiple key indicators of how New Jersey youth are faring in the state welfare system.
The results, said Raimon, “are just extraordinary.”
"I think stable leadership is very important, with the caveat that the stable leadership also has to be good leadership."Martha Raimon, Center for the Study of Social Policy
Reforms put in place in some states before advances in technology and policy shifts in the child welfare system have withstood the test of time.
A practice adopted in North Carolina more than 30 years ago to involve local service providers and county officials in child welfare matters normally handled by the state is still considered an effective method of helping families.
The first Community Child Protection Teams (CCPT) were put in place in May 1991 as a partnership between the state and local communities.
“The purpose is to support and improve child protective services through a community wide approach to the issue of child abuse and neglect,” according to Bailey Pennington Allison, communications specialist with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
The 11-member interdisciplinary teams review child maltreatment and child death cases to evaluate barriers or gaps in services. The 85 local teams completing a state survey last year reviewed 622 cases and forwarded recommendations to the state and county commissioners.
Repositioning the umbrella of child welfare services to include locally generated reviews creates a new layer of community involvement. “CCPT develops local strategies to meet the needs of families whose cases are being reviewed,” said Allison.
The success and failures detailed in the annual surveys, along with recommendations, are compiled by the North Carolina State University Center for Family and Community Engagement and released to the public.
An approach that seeks input from a multi-disciplinary review team has the potential to change or even save a child life, said Ann Simmons, mother of 8-year-old murder victim Rica Rountree from Bloomington-Normal.
“I think anything that gets more than one set of eyes on a case and looks at things from a different perspective would be helpful,” said Simmons.
Rica was tortured and beaten by her father’s girlfriend Cynthia Baker after the child was sent to live with Baker and Richard Rountree, the girl’s father. DCFS case workers failed to protect the child from ongoing physical and emotional abuse after school staff notified them of the situation, according to testimony at Baker’s trial and disciplinary reports disclosed in a DCFS investigation of worker Patricia Shannon.
The union representing Shannon was successful in reducing her suspension and securing a promotion that came with a $20,000 raise.
Simmons called the investigation into her daughter’s death “a sham.”
Alabama emerged from a federal lawsuit with a system of care considered a standard for other states. The emphasis of the state’s “urgency for permanency” program is on returning children to their parents or another stable home environment, said Nancy Buckner, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources.
“It’s in our training sessions and embedded in our practice. We push permanency all the time,” said Buckner. The permanency goal is monitored at the state level.
Services for children and their families, much of the help delivered by local providers, “are put in place right when the child first comes into care,” said Buckner. Welfare agencies “can’t use the cookie cutter approach You have to look at the family and what they need,” she said.
If an Alabama county lacks the resources to help a family, “it’s incumbent upon us to try to develop that resources and get the family exactly what they need,” said Buckner. To meet that goal, the state makes certain funds accessible to counties to develop resources.
Coming Tuesday in this series: Each states creates its own definitions of abuse and neglect and sets a threshold for when a child should be removed from a home. Is it time for Illinois to rethink its own definitions?