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 earlier this month by a federal monitor.  The agency has improved access to health services for foster children and is conducting investigations in a timelier manner. Family team meetings and added caseloads are areas of concern.

Assembly Human Services Chairwoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle says, "The report's findings are troubling. Not only are problems continuing, but they appear to be worsening when it comes to caseloads, visits and work with families. Apparently we are taking steps backward for every inch we move forward."

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," says Zalkind. "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?"

"I plan on calling an Assembly Human Services Committee hearing into this issue on Jan. 5 to hear first-hand from the monitor on the problems facing DYFS and what needs to be done to finally get onto the right course," says Vainieri Huttle. "This is the 10th report since 2006. These problems should be resolved. Lives are at stake here. Mixed reviews are no longer acceptable."

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

Zalkind says, "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."

What's disturbing according to Zalkind 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," explains Zalkind. "Visitation for example between parents and children...maybe it's 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."