NJ.com article: N.J. cuts 67 nurses who monitor foster children. Stunned nurses say it will hurt vulnerable kids
By Susan K. Livio | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
October 17, 2020
On Oct. 24, 2003, Collingswood police found what appeared to be a child searching for a meal in a neighbor’s trash can. The discovery led police to four starving boys and would help drive sweeping changes at the state’s child welfare agency, which was supposed to be monitoring this adoptive family.
Seventeen years later, one of the most heralded of these improvements, the creation of the Child Health Program, is getting downsized. A total of 67 nurses employed by Rutgers University who were assigned to local child welfare offices and kept tabs on each foster child’s physical and mental health, are out of a job after Nov. 6.
The move, part of the state budget approved by Gov. Phil Murphy and the state Legislature last month, saves the state $4.3 million at a time when tax revenues are scarce following months of pandemic-driven business lockdowns.
The employees who are losing their job, represented by the Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5094, said they were stunned the state went through with the job cuts.
They predict the move will disrupt the lives of children who have been through enough turmoil after being removed from their homes, and will drive up the caseloads for each nurse, limiting how much time they can focus on each child.
“I feel like I am abandoning these children,” said Tamara Goodwin, a nurse who works in the Voorhees office for the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency. “They will feel like ‘Another person has left me.’”
A spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families, the state agency that oversees the child welfare system, said the impact of losing these jobs will be minimal because there are far fewer children in foster care than there were when the program began.
There are 4,100 children in foster care, down from 11,600 when Gov. Jim McGreevey’s administration in 2003 agreed to embark on a massive reformation of the long-neglected and underfunded child protection agency, according to state data.
The decline is a result of the department’s long-term ability “to rely far less on family separation as a tool in its child protection operations,” spokesman Jason Butkowski said.
“As a result of efforts to reform child welfare in New Jersey that have been ongoing since the early- to mid-2000s, (the department) has shifted to a model that promotes in-home supports and services, that embodies a commitment to keep families as an intact unit, that utilizes an increase in kinship placement as a safety intervention,” Butkowski said in a statement.
New Jersey now has one of the lowest out-of-home placement rates in the nation, he added.
But union officials warn the recent sharp decline in foster care placements is driven by the coronavirus outbreak.
“COVID-19 has caused our department to jump the gun, in terms of cutting funding. We see the pandemic as masking the numbers,” Goodwin said. “The majority of children are in remote learning. They are not going to the doctor and getting physicals done.”
The concerns that child protection efforts were paralyzed by the pandemic, as schools shut down and extra-curricular activities were put on hold, are widely acknowledged by national child welfare and public health experts.
Children and Families Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer was invited to Murphy’s coronavirus press briefing on April 2 to discuss the very issue, and she noted that calls to the child abuse hotline had fallen as the coronavirus outbreak surged last spring.
As of March 30, the state’s child abuse hotline — 1-877 NJ ABUSE — received 5,177 child protection or child welfare calls. That’s compared to 7,501 in March 2019, a 32% reduction.
“March is traditionally one of our highest reporting months,” Beyer said. “The reduction doesn’t necessarily mean that children are experiencing less abuse and neglect, but rather it’s not being seen or heard.”
But in a response to NJ Advance Media’s questions, Butkowski said, “We do not expect that the reduction in out-of-home placements has been the result of COVID-19.” The decline started much earlier, he said.
There was a 21% decline in the number of foster children in June 2020 compared to June 2019, an 18% decline from 2018 to 2019 and a 9% decline from 2017 to 2018, according to state data from the Department of Children and Families.
With the trend line clear, the need for people working in the Children’s Health Program has diminished, Butkowski said. Even with the loss of jobs, he added, the statewide caseload ratio of one nurse to every 34 children, below the 50-to-1 ratio New Jersey must meet under the terms of a federal court order that has been monitoring the child welfare system since 2003.
Ana Delgado, nurse and case manager in Camden County who is not among those who lost their jobs, said she is already starting to see an uptick of new foster care cases. It’s no surprise, as some children are returning to school on-site and some group activities are permitted again.
The work her team performs is painstaking and crucial, Delgado said.
“If a child has asthma, we will make sure they have an inhaler. We will check when the last time they were enrolled in school so we know if their immunizations are up-to-date,” she said. “We work side-by-side with DCPP caseworkers.”
“Caseload size has always been a challenge and these layoffs will mean that our caseloads will get even bigger,” Delgado said. “I’ve always said that it’s irresponsible of the state to remove a child for neglect only to place them in the same situation. If we cannot meet their needs in foster care, how can we ensure their well-being?”
Judith Meltzer, the longtime monitor of the state’s court-supervised overhaul of the child welfare system, said Beyer has notified her about the layoffs. She said she will be watching that the ratio of nurses to children does not rise above one nurse per 50 children.
The court supervision is the result of a 17-year-old lawsuit settlement with the national nonprofit advocacy group Children Rights, and more recently, A Better Childhood, which sued to demand better funded and more professionally managed child protection services in New Jersey.
“I think that the nurses have been one of the most impactful reforms put in place as a result of the settlement agreement and they continue to be essential to the improved outcomes in children’s health and well-being,” Meltzer said.