Turner Declares Dyfs’s Abuse Findings System A ‘Travesty’ For New Jersey’s Most Vulnerable Children

Senator Shirley K. Turner (D-Mercer) today responded to the disclosure by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) that DYFS was involved with the Benton/Morgan family on four occasions prior to the murder of 2-year-old Tierra Morgan-Glover. Tierra’s father was arrested and charged with her murder on Tuesday.

“I find it extremely disappointing and frustrating that DCF and DYFS are failing to protect our state’s most vulnerable children,” said Turner. “It is a travesty that investigators are permitted to categorize abuse findings as ‘unfounded’ when they believe that some level of abuse or neglect has occurred,” she added, referring to the two-tiered findings system that was established in 2005.

DYFS twice found allegations of abuse and neglect against Tierra to be “unfounded” and closed the case after a third allegation was made, according to an email from DCF Commissioner Allison Blake. Senator Turner is the sponsor of S1570, which establishes three categories for investigative findings of allegations of child abuse and neglect. S1570 was passed by the Senate on June 27, 2011 and is current pending in the Assembly Human Services Committee.

In 2005, the Department of Human Services (now DCF) shifted to a two-tiered findings system for child abuse and neglect cases and redefined the findings categories pursuant to a law passed in 2004 that gave the Department the authority to change the findings system. The middle ground finding of “not substantiated” was eliminated. The finding of “unfounded” was redefined to mean “that there is not a preponderance of evidence that the child was harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm.”

The Department’s change was criticized by the now defunct Office of the Child Advocate in a December 2008 report, which revealed that investigators found the new definition of “unfounded” to be problematic when they had real and valid concerns that child abuse existed. It is also a glaring question raised by a June 2011 report by the Advocates for Children of New Jersey highlighting the “steep drop in the number of reports of suspected child abuse and neglect that are proven or “substantiated.” In 2009, DYFS substantiated allegations dropped to 10 percent, down from about 17 percent in 2005, and less than half the national average of 22 percent. At the same time, the number of reports of abuse and neglect had increased 34 percent.

“Although the Legislature gave the Department the right to redefine the findings system, it’s clear that the Department’s effort has not been effective in protecting children,” said Turner. “The Legislature must take back the responsibility and redefine the statute to make it clear how abuse and neglect findings should be categorized and defined.”

Senator Turner originally introduced S1570 in 2009 after learning about the death of 9-year-old Jamarr Cruz of Camden, who was murdered by his mother’s boyfriend. DYFS had determined that a report of abuse was “unfounded,” despite the fact that the abuser and murderer was on probation for prior abuse against Jamarr. Earlier this year, 8-year-old Christiana Glenn of Irvington was found dead inside her family’s apartment, having suffered from an untreated broken leg and malnutrition. DYFS had been called to the home four times between March 2006 and April 2008, but each time came back with findings of “unfounded.”

“It is disgraceful that little Tierra would suffer such a horrific death, when a finding of ‘not substantiated’ during any of DYFS’s four prior visits could have established a pattern of abuse to provide the intervention and protection necessary to save the child’s life,” said Turner. “How many more children are we going to allow to suffer this same fate before we realize that reducing the number of substantiated claims in the face of some evidence of abuse is harming our children,” Turner asked.

Senator Turner wrote to DCF Commissioner Allison Blake on October 14, 2011 regarding the issues she raised in her testimony before the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee on June 13, 2011. Senator Turner has not yet received a response from the Commissioner. The text of her letter to Commissioner Blake is below:

October 14, 2011

Commissioner Allison Blake

Department of Children and Families

P.O. Box 729

Trenton, NJ 08625-0729

Dear Commissioner Blake,

I write this letter to revisit the issues you raised earlier this year concerning A4109/S1570, which establishes three categories for investigative findings of allegations of child abuse or neglect, and requires DCF to track and report certain unfounded cases that subsequently are substantiated.

As you know, I originally introduced this bill in 2009, after learning about the death of Jamarr Cruz, a 9-year-old boy from Camden whose life was cut too short by the abusive boyfriend of his mother. Sadly, it has taken the death of another child to begin to correct the possible confusion caused by our law and regulations.

I understand your concerns about the bill, from your written Assembly remarks, and would like to briefly address them in this letter.

First, a review of the statutes shows the change from a three tier system to a two tier system was enabled by legislation that was the initiation of reform in our state. A massive bill that became Chapter 130 of the Laws of 2004, effective August 27, 2004, repealed the clear statutory definition of unfounded (“there is no concern on the part of the division that the safety or welfare of the child is at risk”) in the expungement section of Title 9, and enabled the then DHS to redefine the term in regulations. It appears these were not effective until December 19, 2005. Although there is no indication of the intent for this repeal in the bill statements, I accept the explanation put forth by you and child advocates that it was to improve investigative findings by encouraging workers ‘on the fence’ to substantiate rather than find “not substantiated,” in close cases.

However, your own statistics, and a report by the Advocates for Children of New Jersey show that the number of “substantiated” reports of child abuse and neglect has dropped. In 2009, DYFS substantiated allegations for 10 percent of abuse or neglect claims; the national average is 22 percent. In 2004, before the definition and category changes, the substantiation rate was 18.7 percent, much closer to the national average. Simple logic dictates that if your centralized screening and acceptance criteria are consistent (since the law defining what constitutes child abuse or neglect has not changed), and your investigators are better trained to discern facts and symptoms of abuse and neglect, with much lower workloads, we would have a higher, not lower percentage of substantiated cases. The 2004 change clearly did not have the promoted effect.

Coincidentally, as a result of the change expunction (expunging) of unfounded records on closed cases is basically required after 3 years of no reports on the subject child and family. That appears possible, even though some or all of those unfounded decisions may have been ones where the available information obtained during the investigation provided some indication of a finding that a child has been harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm, but was not sufficient to reach preponderance. I doubt that was the intent, but in the case of Christiana Glenn, it would appear that expungement would have or should have been scheduled for this year, 2011, had her death not caused the family case to be re-opened.

Second, after a billion dollars spent on reform since 2004, and the creation of a separate Department of Children and Families in 2006, there have been many improvements. But to say that to train staff in a clearly defined three category system “will be a distraction to your [reform] efforts,” when you have a multi-million dollar Training Academy, and spend millions more on a university consortium to do training, is simply unacceptable. To say it will “provide no tangible benefit to the children and families we serve” is simply wrong. No longer will outside agencies receiving investigative finding, and those clearing possible employees against the state central registry, and even your own screeners and caseworkers, see a determination of “unfounded” and not know if it means these was no safety or risk concern at all, or the investigator just couldn’t tip the scale to over 50%.

Third, with regard to the amendments about sharing more data, they were added specifically to accommodate the Advocates for Children of New Jersey report claiming such data was not available. If you already provide it, or most of it, I do not see the harm in putting it into the statute to cover future Commissioners and administrations, as well. We all know that data can be presented in different ways, and can inform or even distort or obfuscate, depending upon the graphs, charts, and percentages extracted. One particular irksome presentation of data concerns institutional abuse cases. Year after year, I see a lovely color chart showing the source of the report, like schools, or law enforcement, or parents, but I never see a chart showing where the alleged abuse or neglect took place, like day care, or public school, or juvenile detention, or group home, or foster care. Perhaps you can correct that now, both retroactively and for the future, so we know where scrutiny and possible corrective actions are most needed. And, some data on expunction, as far back and as far forward as possible, would be helpful to glean whether the department has addressed the civil rights of parents and other child caretakers, as required both before 2004 and since.

I commend your openness and candor with regard to the recent death of Christiana Glenn. I only wish your department and the federal monitor would be equally candid and open about investigating the tragic death of Jamarr Cruz, as was promised years ago.

Probation and the courts may or may not have accepted their DYFS “unfounded” findings to have the common sense meaning that “nothing happened.” Your screener may or may not have had a similar reaction, had he or she seen the 4 past “unfounded” determinations on Christiana’s family. This legislation may or may not have saved the lives of Jamarr and Christiana, if their records read “not substantiated” rather than “unfounded.” But why should we let such possible misunderstandings continue, when it is clear that the current two category system did not improve the substantiation rate, and may continue to put children at unnecessary risk?

I urge you to reconsider and support this legislation in the interest of the safety and well being of our vulnerable children and families. Concomitantly, I pledge to consider support for any substantive legislation you propose in the same vein.

Sincerely,

Shirley K. Turner

Senator – 15th District