New Jersey's Department of Children and Families is making progress but is still in need of major improvement, according to a court-ordered report released by a federal monitor.

The agency has improved access to health services for foster children and is conducting investigations in a more timely manner. Family team meetings and added caseloads are areas of concern.

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, says the report is not surprising, but it is alarming.

"These results are showing limited improvement. They demonstrate to me that while you can build that structure and improve things like training, there is still a question of how does that impact on practice, what do workers do with that."

She says the agency still faces criticism from two child deaths this year. An Irvingtion child was starved to death following an uninvestigated hotline tip and Tierra Morgan was thrown into a river strapped in her carseat by her father after he refused their services and the mother had reported domestic abuse.

"Cases like those two cases which were horrible child deaths and this federal monitor report, points to the importance of making sure that not just the resources are there and the training is there, but there's an understanding of how to use all that to better protect children."

Zalkind says what's disturbing is that we are five years into this ten year report and there hasn't been much improvement.

"It might be time to start looking in another direction. Visitation for example between parents and children...maybe its time not to expect the caseworker to do that, but maybe its time to start using community agencies or engage in resource parents in helping."

The full report is listed below.

Accomplishments include:

· Healthcare access continues to improve with December 2011 benchmarks being met: 100 percent of children entering out-of-home care received a pre-placement assessment; 89 percent of children age three or older in out-of-home placement for at least six months received a semi-annual dental visit; 97 percent of all children in out-of-home placement were current with their immunizations and 94 percent of children received needed follow-up care.

· New Jersey continued to meet the July 2009 final target for transmitting abuse and neglect referrals to the field with 99 percent of referrals from the State Central Registry (SCR) received in a timely manner. The state also continued to meet the final target for timely completion of investigations involving group homes and other congregate care settings with 88 percent of these investigations completed within 60 days.

· Eighty-seven percent of children were placed with families or in family-like settings, meeting the final target for this outcome. DCF has met this standard for the past five monitoring periods.

· Less than one percent of Resource Family homes had children placed over the capacity standards set by the Modified Settlement Agreement. DCF has maintained this positive performance for the past five monitoring periods.

·· The number of children placed out-of-state for treatment has continued to dramatically decline. Nine children were placed outside of New Jersey in mental health treatment facilities, a reduction from 21 as of December 2010. This is the lowest number since reporting began.

· There were 7,197 children in out-of-home placement, representing a total reduction of 44 percent since 2004, and the lowest number since then.

· During 2011, DCF's newly established Office of Continuous Quality Improvement (OCQI) developed and successfully implemented a statewide qualitative case review process.

Areas needing improvement:

· The final target for case plan development within 30 days of a child entering care (expected to have been met by June 2010) is 95 percent. In June 2011, only 61 percent of children entering out-of-home placements had case plans developed within 30 days. Performance on this measure improves steadily with each monitoring period, but remains low.

· Workers are also required to routinely review and adjust case plans to meet the needs of families. The final target for workers to routinely review and adjust case plans every six months was 95 percent. Last period only between 62 and 71 percent of case plans due each month were modified during this time frame.

· Family Team Meetings (FTMs) are a pivotal aspect of New Jersey's Case Practice Model. Workers are expected to engage families and partners in a coordinated effort to make change intended to result in safety, permanency and well-being for the family. By June 30, 2010, DCF was required to hold FTMs prior to or within 30 days of a child entering foster care and at least once per quarter thereafter for 90 percent of families in all locations. The data is beginning to reflect some improved performance in this monitoring period but performance is varied across the state both in terms of planning for and convening meetings and in terms of the quality and results of the FTMs.

· Data from June 2011 show that of the 548 children who were in an initial or subsequent placement for two full months, 320 (58%) had documented visits by their caseworkers twice per month, as required by the agreement. While DCF's performance improved by eight percent over last monitoring period, it did not meet the December 31, 2010 final target for this measure.

· Last period, 38 percent of children had weekly documented visits with their parents as required and an additional 25 percent of children had two or three visits with their parents during the month. This performance, while also improved, does not meet the final target.

· There are four other substantive areas requiring attention for the state: completing safety and risk assessments prior to closing cases, meeting intake caseload standards, quality of investigations and improving services to older youth.