By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
Thank you for staying out of the headlines. That was the message Gov. Chris Christie sent today to staff at the Department of Children and Families.
A federal monitor 10 days ago gave the department good marks for its steady progress in responding to reports of child abuse.
“Unfortunately, the work of DCF is usually only heard about broadly in the public when something goes wrong. We don’t have. like every 60 days, a story on TV or in the newspapers that say, ‘Another 60 days of extraordinary work where children were protected and families were put back together.’ Let’s take a moment to highlight five or 10 of those success stories. No, no, no, no. The only time we ever read or hear about it is when something goes wrong,” Christie said.
Something went terribly wrong when Faheem Williams, age 7, was found dead and bone-thin in a basement in Newark.
In those days, the agency was known as DYFS and was part of the Department of Human Services. Gov. Jon Corzine turned it into a cabinet level department on its own.
Its 6,600 employees include 2,800 caseworkers in what’s now known as the Division of Child Protection and Permanency.
“I, like many in this room, remember how this reform began and I know deep down what this moment means for all of us,” said New Jersey Department of Children and Families Commissioner Allison Blake.
A national child advocacy group filed a class action lawsuit against New Jersey in 1999. A federal monitor has been evaluating the agency since 2003. The state has put hundreds of millions of dollars into reform efforts. One focus has been reducing worker caseloads.
“In the very early days when the lawsuit was being settled, there were some staff in the state who had caseloads over 75, 85. It was an extraordinary amount of work for them to do and that’s why we were having the problems we were having. Today, yes, they’re working with 12 families, no more than eight new investigations in a month, which gives the time to really do a quality, a thorough investigation,” Blake said.
The quality of that casework is still of concern to the federal monitor. But that was not part of the governor’s message today. He was here to celebrate the progress and thank the people involved for their dedication.
“Because we’re dealing, as Allison said in her introduction, with the most vulnerable people in our state — our children. And the families that bring them into the world. And we all know, each and every one of us in this room, knows under the best circumstances how challenging families can be. Coming off Easter yesterday, I’m reminded,” Christie said.
The governor was effusive in his praise of these child welfare workers. He said he’ll be thinking of them after he leaves office in nine months.