On June 30, the New Jersey State Senate and Assembly unanimously passed legislation to create the Office of the Child Advocate within the State Department of Law and Public Safety. The legislature’s action was a significant move toward enacting the measure I introduced nearly two years ago. This measure would institute an independent watchdog to represent the interests of our State’s most vulnerable children–those under the care of the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). The legislation now awaits the Governor’s signature.
The tragic death of 7-year-old Faheem Williams shocked the entire nation, as did numerous other incidents involving children under DYFS supervision which were reported in the wake of young Faheem’s death. Department of Human Services Commissioner Gwendolyn Harris announced in February that 123 children have died in New Jersey in the past five years–a rate of nearly 25 children per year. Of the 123 deaths, two-thirds of the children were from families under DYFS supervision or with closed DYFS cases. These statistics have clearly exposed the failings of New Jersey’s child protection system.
The Child Advocate would be appointed by the Governor to act as a check upon our child protection system and to ensure that this system does not fail our children again. Even though other vulnerable groups like the institutionalized elderly have their own advocate, creating an independent position charged with representing the interests of children like Faheem has been an uphill battle.
It is unsettling that it took the death of young Faheem to make reforming DYFS a legislative priority. Even more disturbing is the realization that Faheem’s death and the deaths of many other innocent children could have been potentially avoided through proper oversight of the agency charged with protecting them. Perhaps most alarming of all is the fact that the Child Advocate bill languished in a Senate committee for nearly two years until it had a Democratic Co-Chair–effectively stalling the implementation of agency reforms until it was too late to save Faheem and many others like him.
New Jersey’s child welfare system is clearly in need of urgent and drastic reform. A successful transformation of DYFS will instill reforms throughout the entire agency–from reducing the number of caseloads assigned to each worker, to modernizing antiquated office equipment, to recruiting more foster parents ready to provide children with healthy and safe living environments. First and foremost, however, the State must do everything in its power to ensure the immediate safety of children under its supervision.
As lawmakers, we should be committed to supporting legislation that will aid in the protection of vulnerable children. This protection should be a priority of our current legislature and every legislature to come. The State’s recent settlement of the class-action lawsuit brought by Children’s Rights Inc. should serve to speed along the implementation of legislation like the Child Advocate bill. Each minute that we delay in instituting such measures represents a minute in which another child in this state could potentially fall victim to abuse and neglect.
The children of New Jersey are depending on someone to protect them. In the absence of a safe family environment, the State must act as protector and lawmakers must make laws which ensure the safety of society’s most vulnerable members. We will have our own consciences to live with if we do not at long last fulfill this aspect of our duty as elected officials.
Senator Baer represents the 37th legislative district, which includes parts of Bergen County.