TRENTON – The head of New Jersey’s child welfare agency says she hopes the state soon is able to exit the federal monitorship it has been under for 15 years, as part of a settlement of a lawsuit filed against the state in 1999.

“We are at a place where we should be out of this lawsuit,” Children and Families Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer said at an Assembly Budget Committee hearing Wednesday. “The last hearing in January, the plaintiffs’ attorney actually said: ‘I have no comment. I think the department is doing an excellent job.’ She had no issues.”

“Our federal monitor is also saying: ‘You need to be out of this lawsuit. You should be out of this lawsuit,’” Beyer said.

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However, such a resolution could still be a few years away. The most recent monitor report found the state was still wasn’t meeting four of 48 performance measures, and the state isn’t supposed to exit monitoring until it complies fully with the modified settlement agreement for two continuous years.

Beyer said the decision ultimately will be up to a federal judge, if the state convinced the plaintiffs to petition for an end to the case.

“We are working, have been working with our federal monitor to try to develop or create conditions that we could put into place that would, with some confidence, allow us to get out of the lawsuit and have maybe some leave-behinds for a 12- or 18-month period,” Beyer said.

Beyer said the state is now a leader on the issue, meeting a couple of times each month with officials from other states or counties across the country wanting to learn about New Jersey’s work.

“We have one of the best child welfare agencies in the entire country,” Beyer said.

“What we were sued for back in the ‘90s, 1990s, was specifically around the care of children in foster care,” she said. “Those issues where we were sued no longer are they issues. And we would not be sued today, we would not have been sued 10 years ago, for that.”

The lawsuit was filed in 1999. It was settled in 2003, but the initial reform plans were moving slowly and the case was revived. The settlement was modified in 2006, including the federal monitor.

Three of the remaining four outcomes are measured by a qualitative review process that Beyer said is subjective. The fourth is a requirement that workers visit parents twice monthly when a child is in the state’s custody with a permanency goal of reunification, which remained below standard in the months before the pandemic began and, obviously, during the public health emergency.

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Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, said the state should push harder to get out.

“Maybe New Jersey should take a more aggressive tone and petition firmly that all conditions in fact that are material have been met, and those people should go concentrate elsewhere where significant shortfalls are occurring,” Burzichelli said.

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