New Jersey's Department of Children and Families has made strides in many areas, but continues to fall short of several key performance benchmarks, according to the latest court-ordered progress report issued by a federal monitor Wednesday.

The report finds case planning, family team meetings and timely visitation remain areas of concern. Completing safety and risk assessments before closing cases, meeting caseload intake standards, improving services for older youths and increasing the quality of investigations were also found to be in need of improvement.

The agency has made strides in improving access to health services for foster children, doing investigations in a timely manner and placing children in family-like settings that do not exceed capacity limits, according to the report.

It also found the agency met or surpassed new staff training requirements and was on track in a multi-year effort to retrain the entire staff. The agency also exceeded targets for recruiting and licensing new households -- both kin and non-kin homes -- to take in children in need of placement.

New Jersey has spent $1 billion to overhaul its child-welfare system under the supervision of a federal judge since 2003, when an outside monitor was appointed to oversee changes at the agency. The overhaul was ordered following the discovery of the mummified remains of a 7-year-old boy found in the basement of a Newark apartment, and then, later that year, the discovery of four boys found starving in Collingswood because their adoptive mother withheld food.

The Center for the Study of Social Policy was appointed as the monitoring agency in 2006. Its latest report covers data and interviews from January to June 2011.

It finds DCF "on course toward meaningful practice change in New Jersey," saying the agency met 24 of 55 performance measures in the latest report. Of the measures that fell short, the report found more than 30 percent of them had improved from the previous monitoring period.

The report expresses concern that areas like caseworker visits, as well as parent-child visits considered an essential component of successful family reunification, remain at below target levels.

Only 58 percent of children in foster care received the required bi-monthly caseworker visits during their first two months of placement, according to the report, and only 38 percent of children had the required weekly documented visits with their parents. The report also finds lower than acceptable levels of case plans being developed within the required 30 days for children in out-of-home placements.

The report commends Allison Blake -- DCF commissioner since June 2010 -- for improving public transparency of the agency's functions with the creation of the Office of Advocacy and the Office of Continuous Quality Improvement. That office addresses constituent concerns and continues to review and improve the case management process.

It also lauds DCF's efforts to re-examine its hotline operations in the wake of an anonymous tip to an agency hotline in May that went uninvestigated, nine days before an 8-year-old girl was found dead in her home from starvation and abuse.

DCF supervises more than 7,000 children living in licensed foster and group homes.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)