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Foster Care System

January 6, 2012 by staff 

Foster Care System, As part of the terms agreed upon in a federal class-action lawsuit, three monitors will receive a budget and staff to ensure the state Department of Human Services makes progress on improving its child welfare system.

The settlement agreement reached Wednesday by the commission overseeing DHS and the New York-based nonprofit Children’s Rights presents a model of oversight with the backing of the federal court, but not with a consent decree.

A fairness hearing is expected to be set by U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell, who will decide whether to issue an order approving the settlement agreement.

If approved, the monitors, called “co-neutrals” in the agreement, will contract with the state and have a range of authority, including approving or rewriting portions of an improvement plan and seeking judicial orders. They will also produce reports on how DHS is progressing toward the reforms chosen.

The improvement plan will be submitted by DHS to the monitors by March 30 and involve areas such as worker caseloads, worker visitations to foster children, number of available foster homes, number of foster placements, emergency shelter use and child abuse and neglect while in the state’s care.

Children’s Rights has filed similar lawsuits in 15 other jurisdictions and states with half ending with a consent decree and half with a settlement agreement, said founder and executive director Marcia Lowry.

“I do not believe there is a difference between a consent decree and the settlement agreement,” Lowry said. “Some states don’t like the term ‘consent decree.’ What matters is what power the court continues to have and what power and authority is vested in people other than the state.

“That’s really where you see how effective the agreement is going to be. This will be an order enforceable in federal court.”

Terms of the settlement require DHS to contract with each monitor for at least one year with an option to renew on an annual basis.

The contracts with the monitors will include a “budget and staff” and leaves open the possibility of a third party or foundation to fund all or part of the expenses.

The monitors may contract with experts or consultants “as deemed appropriate,” and agree to “reasonable and customary fees and to actual expenses.”

Director Howard Hendrick said negotiations for those contracts will be the priority during the next several weeks and no agreement is in place.

The monitors were mutually selected by the parties and have experience in child-welfare issues. They are:

Kathleen G. Noonan, an attorney and current clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Law, focusing on health and government law. She co-founded a Philadelphia-based center on children’s health and well-being and also served on the faculty of the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Eileen Crummy, who worked 33 years in New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services, rising to become the agency’s director, where she led a massive organizational reform. She is a partner in Public Catalyst, serves as a monitor of Michigan’s federal child welfare consent decree and provides technical assistance to states on developing outcomes-based child welfare and human service programs.

Kevin Ryan, who served as New Jersey’s first Child Advocate and as the state’s first commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, successfully launching a reform of child welfare and juvenile justice services. During his tenure, the state set records in adoptions, foster family recruitment and safety for children in placement.

Hendrick said the concept for the framework presented in the settlement was the subject of some of Noonan’s legal writings. He said Crummy and Ryan bring experience to the table.

“Both sides probably have some uncertainty about how their views will be received by the co-neutrals, but each is an experienced professional with different strengths that should collectively assist the department in achieving the outcomes desired by both parties to the agreement,” Hendrick stated.

Lowry said it “takes an unusual combination of skills” to be an effective monitor or mediator of a child-welfare system.

“The key elements are people who understand what good practice is – understand it is not this year’s new fad, new name or new approach,” Lowry said. “These are people who are rigorous in their thinking and not afraid to call things the way they are. It takes strength and courage when nice, hardworking people are not getting it right.

“It take a toughness of mind and sense of fairness, and it takes people who have actually been there.”

When Children’s Rights filed a lawsuit against the child welfare system in New Jersey, Ryan was the acting director and Crummy was an employee, who was eventually promoted during reforms.

The two have since gone to other jobs related to improving child-welfare system and come highly recommended by Lowry.

“These people have the experience of actually living through fundamental change,” Lowry said. “I watched (Ryan) produce changes in a large, chaotic and very, very dysfunctional system. It went from a horrible system to one of making changes for children. It went from a system of absolute disgrace to one people can be proud of. It is not there yet but continues to make progress.”

Lowry said her nonprofit has had involvement of neutral monitors and oversight panels in other cases.

“Monitors are not unusual, but the power and authority that these will continue to have is unusual,” Lowry said. “(Monitors) usually simply monitor and report and sometimes mediate between the parties in disputes … This is an extraordinary exceptional remedy.”

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