« Fla. Couple Sought on Child Abuse Charges | Main | Parents Charged In 'Worst Case Of Abuse Ever Seen' »

February 04, 2005

Child-abuse audit faults agency

February 4, 2005 [Gannett State Bureau]
By Jonathan Tamari

A state agency responsible for investigating thousands of allegations of child abuse and neglect has a massive backlog and is too slow in completing its work, according to an audit by the state Office of the Child Advocate.

The report studied the Institutional Abuse Investigation Unit in the Department of Human Services. The unit examines alleged child abuse in out-of-home settings such as foster homes, schools or other institutions.

"This is just not good enough for our children. No way," said Child Advocate Kevin M. Ryan. "IAIU is the safety net for children who have been removed from their families."

The report also said the agency's professional judgment improved only slightly after a previous audit and found particular problems in its South Jersey offices. Investigators often failed to do proper background checks, and the state sometimes placed children in

settings with a history of abuse, the audit found.

As of Nov. 30, the IAIU had 956 uncompleted investigations that were past due. The number of overdue cases rose 445 percent from Oct. 1, 2003 to the end of November, the report said.

Human Services Commissioner James M. Davy vowed to correct the problems found in the report. He said the state is beginning its five-year child-welfare-reform plan and that improvements for the IAIU were on the way before the audit.

"This unit is critical to our mission of protecting children, and we must get better," Davy said in a statement.

While the Division of Youth and Family Services examines alleged abuses of children within their own homes, IAIU performs a similar task in other settings. IAIU had 2,817 referrals in 2003, the most recent year for which that data is available.

The Child Advocate's office and readers from the Rutgers University Center for Children and Families reviewed 161 IAIU cases investigated between Nov. 1, 2003 and May 31. The study included 131 cases where investigators reached a conclusion.

The Department of Human Services has hired 14 new investigators for the unit and plans to add more with a goal of eliminating the backlog within eight months. Ryan wants faster results.

"This has got to be a priority," Ryan said.

Ryan cited the South Jersey region, which includes Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem and Atlantic counties, as having particular problems. The region had the largest backlog and only found one case of "substantiated" abuse among those studied by auditors. That case was only substantiated after Ryan's office intervened to question an earlier finding.

Overall, auditors disagreed with IAIU findings in 21 of the 131 completed cases they reviewed.

In one such case, a man admitted to beating his foster child with a belt, but the unit did not substantiate claims of abuse.

Auditors agreed with IAIU findings in 102 cases with a conclusion, or 78 percent. Ryan said this was a "modest" improvement over a 75 percent rate found in a study two years ago.

IAIU investigators failed to do background checks for more than half of the alleged abusers, the report said. Four of the alleged perpetrators who were checked had a prior case of substantiated abuse, leading to questions about communications between investigators and DYFS, which is responsible for placing children in safe settings, Ryan said.

There were, however, some high points. The report found a case in which enterprising investigators helped thwart a cover-up. Another investigator found witnesses that even police had missed.

Ryan said more training and supervision is needed for investigators whose work falls short.

Ryan said his office will begin another audit this summer. DHS is required to formally respond to the report within 30 days.

Posted by Nancy at February 4, 2005 05:12 PM