VAINIERI HUTTLE, RAMOS, TUCKER BILL TO IMPROVE INVESTIGATION OF CHILD ABUSE CLAIMS ADVANCES

Measure Would Change Definitions Used to Investigate Claims to Help Improve Outcomes, Protect Children

Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Ruben J. Ramos, Jr., and Cleopatra Tucker that would help improve state investigations of child abuse and neglect allegations was released Thursday by an Assembly panel.

The measure (A-4109) was approved after the Assembly Human Services Committee heard testimony from the federal monitor overseeing the state’s child welfare reform efforts. Vainieri Huttle called the hearing in an effort to improve the investigation of child abuse or neglect allegations after the monitor’s December report raised continued concern about the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) within the Department of Children and Families (DCF).

“This hearing helped give us a first-hand glimpse of the problems facing DYFS and DCF and what needs to be done to finally get on the right course,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) the chairwoman of the Assembly Human Services Committee. “The Department has certainly made substantial progress in many areas, but unfortunately when it comes to caseloads, visits and work with families the situation appears to be worsening. This is one of the reasons I had adamantly opposed the Governor’s elimination of the child advocate. Leaving a whole class of children far more vulnerable to neglect and abuse is simply not worth the small sum it saved.”

The report, which was the tenth issued since 2006, criticized the state for failing to assess how safe children were in their homes before closing a case, noting that only 25 percent of families were adequately assessed for safety and 35 percent were adequately assessed for risk of harm.

Under the bill (A-4109) approved today, the categories that child protective investigators use to review allegations of child abuse and neglect would be redefined and a new category of “not substantiated” would be reintroduced.

The sponsors said the impetus for their legislation came in large part from a 2008 study by the office of the Child Advocate and a study earlier this year by Advocates for Children that reported that after the 2004 elimination of the “not substantiated” category, a larger number of cases were ruled unfounded, limiting investigators’ ability to develop an accurate record of potential cases of child abuse.

“Hopefully this legislation will help investigators capture a sizeable portion of abuse cases that might otherwise fall through the cracks,” added Vainieri Huttle. “If we can improve or save the life of even one abused child with these changes, then they will have been well worth doing.”

“Being trapped in an abusive environment can turn a child’s life into a living hell,” said Ramos (D-Hudson). “Simplifying the way DCF decides whether allegations of abuse are legitimate could literally mean the difference between life and death for children suffering at the hands of their abusers.”

The three categories, as defined by the bill, are as follows:

  • Substantiated: the available information obtained during an investigation of an allegation of abuse or neglect, as evaluated by a child protective investigator, indicates a finding by a preponderance of the evidence that a child has been harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm by a parent or guardian, and the child is an abused or neglected child;
  • Not Substantiated: the available information obtained during the investigation of an allegation of child abuse or neglect, as evaluated by a child protective investigator, provides some indication of a finding that the child has been harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm by a parent or guardian, but does not indicate the child is an abused or neglected child; and
  • Unfounded: the available information obtained during the investigation of an allegation of abuse or neglect, as evaluated by a child protective investigator, indicates a finding that there is no risk to the safety or welfare of the child.

“It is our job to do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable among us,” said Tucker (D-Essex). “Making it easier to identify whether a potential case of child abuse has merit or not will help DCF better protect New Jersey children suffering from abuse.”

The measure would further require DCF to track and annually publish the number of incidents determined by the department to be substantiated that involved children who previously were the subject of investigations that were determined to be unfounded, as defined by the bill. The department also would be required to develop standards to reduce the incidence of repeated cases of child maltreatment indentified above.

The Assembly Human Services Committee released the bill by a vote of 8-0. It now awaits consideration by the full Assembly.