Since 2006, the department had averaged 20 child abuse and neglect deaths a year, according to department records, with no more than five open cases on the family at the time the child died. Last year, when nine children died, including a newborn in Ocean County, the department had three open cases, according to the latest data, which has not yet been made public. The Press obtained the data through a public records request.
In two other instances, the department knew of the family or victim, but a recent and controversial change to state regulations allows the department to withhold details of the state’s involvement with a family. “Such involvement (is) not pertinent to the fatality,” according to the records obtained the Press. The department said it made the change to comply with updated federal guidance.
But that change “compromises our ability to learn something and prevent future tragedies,” said Nancy Parello, spokeswoman for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which argued against the proposal last year. “It means that we have no idea what happened in those cases.”
The department has been under the review of a federal monitor, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, since 2006 to improve the state’s child welfare system, which for years had “systemic problems that jeopardized the health and safety” of children due to slashed funding and official neglect, according to a class-action lawsuit in 1999 against the Division of Youth and Family Services, now known as Child Protection & Permanency, or CP&P.
Progress at the department has been significant in some areas and lagging in others, according to the latest report by the monitor. That report noted that the department’s caseload for investigations of abuse and neglect, while appropriately screened and forwarded, are “still higher than acceptable” and not completed in a timely fashion. New Jersey’s Child Fatality & Near Fatality Review Board, a body that is “in but not of” the department, has repeatedly cited in its annual reports CP&P’s “difficulty in evaluating risk.”
In a statement to the Press, spokesman Ernest Landante said the department relies on data to track its work and “make adjustments as needed.”
“Several years of data show significant variability and neither a discernable pattern nor relationship between child deaths and cases where a family was known to, or had a case open with, Child Protection and Permanency,” Landante said.
In a third of the cases from last year, the department had contact with the victims within three weeks of their death, according to the data.
One included a mother in Passaic County who was repeatedly reported to the department for alleged offenses, like living in a home with no electricity, heat or food that had been raided by law enforcement due to drug activity. She had been substantiated for neglect by the department in 2012 but other allegations were unfounded by the department, including one, on March 11, 2013 that she “lacked parenting skills.” Thirteen days later the woman’s 4-month-old son, M.H., died as a result of injuries of physical abuse by the mother, which she admitted to the department, according to records. Parents are not identified in the records, and the victim’s are identified by their initials.
In Essex County, the department opened a case for a 3-year-old female, I.N., on Sept. 16 after receiving a report on its child abuse hotline. The girl had bruises on her face, according to records. She was taken to the hospital four days later, unable to breathe. The cause of death was blunt-force trauma and the death was ruled a homicide, according to records. The mother was “substantiated” for physical abuse but it is not clear if she was criminally charged.
Some cases of abuse are inevitable to escape the notice of the department. In Toms River last August, a month-old girl, J.R., arrived to Community Medical Center pale, cold and her lips and face blue, according to records. She died the next day. Her parents, Giovanna Rojas and Michael Rojas, a convicted sex offender, face charges of aggravated manslaughter and child endangerment. They were not known to the department. The Rojas case is still pending in court.
Dustin Racioppi: 732-643-4028; firstname.lastname@example.org