New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services has taken a lot of flack this year. In a tragedy which held the headlines for some weeks, 7-year-old Faheem Williams had been under agency supervision before his decomposed body was found on January 5 in an aunt's basement in Newark. The department has been under intense scrutiny ever since, and a caseworker and her supervisor have been suspended.
Human Services Commissioner Gwendolyn Harris has vowed to fix a state child welfare agency that she said lacks focus, accountability, resources and longevity among its workers. Harris and Colleen Maguire, the newly appointed director of what is now called the Division of Child Protection and Permanency, spoke to AP editors and reporters in Trenton on Wednesday.
Harris and Maguire said a fundamental problem is that the agency has crept from its mission of assuring the physical well being of children to addressing other related family issues, while a complaint of caseworkers is that they get bogged down with matters like trying to reschedule a parent's drug abuse counseling session, conferring with teachers on truancy, or even shopping for diapers or food. To relieve case workers of those kinds of tasks, Harris said other agencies will have to become more involved.
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One has sympathy for all parties here. Young Faheem, first and foremost, though he was not, it seems, the only child "under agency supervision" in recent months to have gone missing – and indeed to have died while being so.
However, changing the name of New Jersey’s DYFS is cosmetic to the point of absurdity, especially when one sees the immanent conflict within the working conditions of all who are involved there. It is not surprising, for example, that an agency short on resources is also going to be short of "longevity among its workers". The one circumstance is a direct cause of the other. And for those of us in the field of child and youth care, there is nothing unusual about a case worker having to engage the client’s system(s) as much as the client, and declaring a youngster "under supervision" will never magically ensure that all of his or her systems will operate perfectly. The work of supervising and servicing just one child "out there" is staggering – and by definition it will defy anyone's timetables and plans.
But there’s more. One can scarcely pick up a newspaper today without reading of yet another state which is slashing its budget for work with children and families. We won’t go into the controversies over the causes which are muscling out funds for children, youth and families, but enough to say that "fings aren’t wot they used to be", and are going to get worse before they get better.
And more. The coup de grâce. It seems that the tendency to place children outside their homes has increased in recent years in New Jersey, and state figures show that 11,172 children under DYFS supervision were living outside their homes in 2002, including 7,111 in foster care. A total of 47,248 children (and, face it, their families) were under supervision! Now I may be way off base, but these figures sound like those of some whole countries in our world.
Must admit, the DYFS – sorry, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency – and all its people have quite some job on their hands. Maybe all of us who have contributed so much flack might also now contribute some ideas, moving forward, for the good of our children and families in what seems like a hopeless system.