The report praised the state for adding 260 workers, creating a statewide abuse and neglect hotline, and recruiting more than 454 new foster and adoptive homes - while still noting shortcomings in each of those areas.
While average caseloads have been reduced, the report found, some workers still have too many cases, and training for hotline operators and caseworkers still lags.
The child-welfare system works with more than 60,000 children at any given time.
Despite the significant problems still facing the state, child advocates were largely encouraged by the state's progress, and state officials said they were working to follow the panel's blueprint.
"It's been said that trying to reform a child-welfare system in as much trouble as New Jersey's is like trying to fix a bicycle while riding it," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "The report shows that the new leaders at DYFS [the Division of Youth and Family Services] and DHS [the Department of Human Services] are pretty good cyclists. In fact, I know of no other court-ordered reform effort that has made as much progress as quickly."
Still, panel members said the state must, within 30 days, take steps to give the head of the Office of Children's Services clear authority to oversee all of the elements of the numerous required changes. In addition, they said, each of the state's regional offices - where workers are stationed - should have a single boss.
Panelists noted that five separate budget offices under the Department of Human Services all have a degree of authority over the reform effort. Cohen said that if the large bureaucracy at Human Services is unable to significantly empower its Office of Children's Services to manage the required changes, the panel could ask the court to force the state to create a separate department to oversee child welfare whose leader would be in the governor's cabinet.
Cohen said the panel, created by the 2003 settlement of a lawsuit filed against the state by Children's Rights Inc., will detail in the next six-month report the state's progress on changes to the bureaucracy, but could take action sooner if deemed necessary.
"If we don't see progress, we reserve the right to move more quickly on that, and we will, if we have to," Cohen said.
Panelists noted that top state officials had expressed desire to pursue the recommended changes. The director of the Office of Children's Services, Human Services Deputy Commissioner Kathi Way, said the state had already taken some of the actions called for by the panel.
"The organizational issues identified by the panel are being addressed through a number of changes that are already under way," she said.
Way said the administrative functions of the Divisions of Family and Youth Services; Child Behavioral Health; and Prevention and Community Partnerships would all be taken over by her office. She also said she would appoint directors who would oversee all three divisions in the local offices.
To address other concerns, Way said, the department has hired a new assistant commissioner to run the state's child-welfare training program and a new manager to run the centralized abuse and neglect hotline.
Children's Rights executive director Marcia Robinson Lowry said the bureaucratic structure that led the state to have one of the worst child-welfare systems in the nation must be quickly remedied.
"We have said all along that the current organizational structure is designed to fail children," she said. "Until there is a dramatic change in the structure, we don't see how all the state's good intentions can actually make children's lives better."
New Jersey's child-welfare system, sued by Children's Rights in 1999, drew national attention in January 2003 with the death of Faheem Williams. The 7-year-old Newark boy was found dead, the victim of abuse, after a complaint that he and his brothers were being mistreated was closed by a caseworker although they had never been seen by the worker. Faheem's death spurred the state to negotiate a settlement of the suit in June 2003. Four months later, the state was embarrassed again when four starving adopted brothers were found in a Collingswood home frequented by child welfare workers.
"The panel's first monitoring report correctly concludes that state bureaucracy has hampered reforms," said Cecelia Zalkind, executive director of the Association for Children of New Jersey.
"The creation of new divisions and new management positions has been carried out without clear definitions of the roles and responsibilities of these new staff and agencies," she said. "This has created more bureaucracy, increasing the chances that vulnerable children will fall through the system's cracks."
Contact staff writer Mitch Lipka at 609-989-8990 or email@example.com.
Highlights From the Report
A court-appointed panel of experts issued its first in a series of six-month reports on changes the state must undertake in order to repair its troubled child-welfare system.
Here are the main findings:
The state has taken most actions it has committed to, including hiring 260 new workers and supervisors and increasing payments to relatives who take in abused and neglected children.
Caseloads have been reduced overall, but some workers still have too many cases.
Instituting a centralized hotline to receive calls about abused and neglected children was a plus, but the hotline has problems, including inadequate training of operators.
The state's training program for front-line workers has not adequately progressed.
The department responsible for making changes to the system has a confusing organizational structure that is hampering reform efforts.
Access the monitor's first period report on New Jersey Child Welfare, along with other recent news, at http://go.philly.com/dyfs