How Well Does New Jersey Protect Its Children?

by Michael BellesfieldThis statement is in response to the current Task Force’s
requests for public comments on the following questions:

  • How well does New Jersey protect its children?
  • How well do community agencies and organizations work
    together to protect children?
  • What are your experiences with the Division of Youth
    and Family Services?
  • What strategies would you suggest to help New Jersey
    support and protect its children?

This statement has also been prompted by the article
appearing in the Trenton Times on March 31, 1997, page A4,
which describes the probable conflicts of interest of
members of this Task Force, and the lack of response from
people who are most affected by DYFS – “poor parents.”

…the primary function of the agency is to maximize the number of children in the system for the purpose of obtaining subsidies from federal programs…. These payments in turn benefit DYFS contractors.

The Times article, the reports referred to and the experiences
described below, and other testimonies presented to this panel since March 5th indicate that the DYFS organization is ineffective because its focus is not on children’s welfare. Rather, the primary function of the agency is to maximize the number of children in the system for the purpose of obtaining subsidies from federal programs as provided by the federal foster care and child abuse treatment and prevention acts, and in the form of the child’s Medicaid and SSI, in addition to payments from individual parent’s health insurance policies and other support payments. These payments, in turn, then benefit DYFS contractors, such as the members of this Task Force, whose businesses provide the DYFS “services.” The effect of this conduct is to divert services from children who are truly in need, and to victimize innocent children who are not abused or neglected and do not require services.

How well does New Jersey protect its children?

First, it is acknowledged that the reason the Task Force has been convened by Governor Whitman is due to the failure of this division of the State’s Human Services Department to protect children. This failure is not debated. The agency’s failure has long been criticized by the public and documented in several recent studies and official comments and are included here by reference:

  • Report by New Jersey Legal Services, December, 1994,
    “Families at Risk: The Need for Foster Care Reform”
  • Testimony of William Waldman, current State Commissioner
    of Human Services, before the Senate Committee on
    Children’s Services hearings, September, 27, 1988,
    pages 24 and 25 of the transcript.
  • Reports by Association for Children of New Jersey,
    “Splintered Lives,”June, 1988, and
    “In Their Own Words: An Inside View of New Jersey’s
    Child Protective System,” March, 1997.

These reports make it clear that the system does not work,
and make specific recommendations for reform.

The Legal Services report and the comments by William Waldman show that there is a serious abuse of power by the agency. These abuses appear targeted mostly toward the state’s most vulnerable families (low income, single parent households) who are least likely to be able to defend themselves against this government bureaucracy. No family
is secure from DYFS’ coercive intervention and intrusion by the agency’s misuse of the “voluntary” placement form.

The March, 1997, ACNJ report was the catalyst for the dismissal four weeks ago of DYFS director, Patricia Balasko-Barr. However, the operation of the agency is the responsibility of the Department of Human Services and, ultimately, the Governor’s office. DYFS has had at
least four different directors over the past six years, which has not improved system performance. Merely changing a director without mandating reform of the entire system from higher levels of state government is clearly not a solution.

This “system” is not limited to the DYFS organization. Comprehensive reform must include those sections of the Department of Law and Public Safety, the Public Defenders Office, the Family Court part of the Superior Court’s Chancery Division, and private agencies who do business
with DYFS.

According to the Legal Services report, 80% of the children in DYFS custody are there due to use of the “voluntary” placement form by DYFS. Even if it is argued that half of these “voluntary” placements are legitimate on the part of the parents(which is doubtful), that means 40% of DYFS resources are being diverted away from children who actually
need help, and irreparable damage is caused to the children who do not. This is outrageous.

“Risk of abuse” and actual abuse must also be distinguished.
Legislation on the two aspects of accountability is required to at least begin the reform process:
1) to address to lack of response by DYFS in cases of actual abuse and neglect, and
2) to address the diversion of needed services away from actual cases by false allegations and coercive intervention, which is the cause of the system’s current overload.

How well do community agencies and organizations work together to protect children?

Since signs of child abuse are readily apparent, there should be a process for assisting those children who are actually abused and their families. The current laws requiring mandatory reporting and cooperation among all public and private organizations are an effort at this process and are most effective in cases of actual abuse.

However, not every child is abused. Not every child is “at risk” of abuse. The current affiliations as mandated by law among schools, police, DYFS, and every public or private organization across US society has already created an environment of hysteria, paranoia, harassment by government, and high potential for duplicity and
corruption which is preventing children in need from receiving help, and harming children who are not in need.

Well thought out accountability legislation as recommended in the reports referred to above would both assure timely delivery of services where needed, and eliminate the current waste of resources where not required.

What are your experiences with the Division of Youth and
Family Services(DYFS)?

On a personal level, I have had the displeasure of interfacing with DYFS on two major occasions in my life.
First at the age of sixteen when DYFS coercively intervened
in our family taking my brother, then 12, into custody.
As an adult survivor of that experience I can unequivocally
state that my parents were neither abusive or neglectful.
They were, however, lower-middle income, laboring people.
Since my brother was born “tongue-tied” and had an early
speech impediment, he was stereotyped by the public schools
as “retarded.” My mother refused to accept this and ultimately found a medical doctor who was able to determine that the skin beneath my brother’s tongue was extended too far forward to allow its full movement. He simply clipped the membrane. My brother, who was an extremely intelligent individual at that time, has had normal speech since then. The stereotyping as “retarded” never did cease however,
and I recall my father complaining about the numerous absurd reports generated by the public schools. As matters were escalated by the schools (with DYFS) eventually my brother was assigned a case worker. The ironic point to this anecdote is that while my brother did not need DYFS, the case worker’s son was arrested of bank robbery!

Although my brother was not retarded, not anti-social, and not abused he was eventually taken away by DYFS. He was repeatedly moved from one foster home or facility another. As a young teen I witnessed both my parents’ anguish and my brother’s education in the DYFS “college of delinquent knowledge.” Today, because all of this was “in the best interest of the child,” my brother is a drug addict.

Currently my own son, now sixteen, has been in DYFS’ custody for over three years. Our case was also initiated with DYFS by the public schools who continue to pursue their own agenda of placing my child in Special Education, and who had gone as far as strip searching my child to look for signs of abuse on DYFS recommendations. Prior to DYFS intervention, my son was a recognized gifted and talented student who loved to study biology and algebra and in 8th grade was eligible to take the S.A.T.’s, scoring 75 percentile.

Abuse by the schools and DYFS inevitably affected my son’s behavior, and he responded by developing a habit of running away at the slightest correction. After one of these incidents
DYFS was called in. Although the field worker’s notes from that night state “There is no imminent danger in this case,” I was coerced into signing the “voluntary” placement form. The field worker declared “If you don’t sign this I am calling a magistrate right now and you won’t get your kid back at all, but if you sign this
you can revoke it in three days after a cooling off period and get him back.” It has now been three and a half years.
Immediately upon signing the form the worker snapped it up and stated, “Well, that’s reality. At least my kid is going to be going to college. Your kid might not come out of this at all.

While in DYFS’ custody it has been documented that my child was physically abused by foster parents, and was repeatedly from one home or facility to another. The therapists involved by DYFS in our matter have falsified reports to family court, skewed psychological test results, and threatened to make my child “a very disturbed boy” if I did not cooperate. I have received death threats and been subjected to repeated intimidation.

For example, a few weeks after DYFS intervention someone placed a copy of “Chop Shop” in my car, the apparently true story from California of the black market for human body parts, the implication being that my child could be next. I have been told that “No judge is ever going to do anything that DYFS doesn’t want,” and heard “Well, he’s never going to see
his daddy again.”

My experiences have given me the personal impression that the present function of the agency amounts to organized crime. This is what is wrong with the current system, this is why the system appears to be ineffective, even though all this confusion and disarray does benefit DYFS’ contractors, and this is precisely why reform is required.

In addition to these personal experiences I refer the reader to several recent news articles regarding the New Jersey DYFS:

“Caseworker nabbed in crack buy,” Trentonian, December 10, 1995,

“Marie, 17, ties to start new life after mom’s jailing,
foster abuse,” Morris County Daily Record, December 7, 1996,

“State seeks licenses of 2 psychologists accused of
misconduct in teen program,” Trenton Times, December 13, 1996,

“Experts find breakdown at DYFS,” Star Ledger, February 26, 1997,

“DYFS review panel plagued by questions,” Trenton Times, March 31, 1997.

These types of articles are regularly found in the news around New Jersey. How much longer must this abuse of children by DYFS persist?

What strategies would you suggest to help New Jersey support
and protect its children?

Due to DYFS misconduct and abuse of power described in the reports referred to above and numerous others, it is clear that DYFS is functioning as an “enterprise” as defined within the federal R.I.C.O. statues. Investigation of the operations of the DYFS agency by both federal and state commissions is called for and necessary.

In addition, rather than continuing to ignore recommendations which have already been made for reforming this system, the state must end further debate and the wasting of resources, and implement these recommendations:

1. Place time limits on placement agreements.

2. Limit placement agreements to cases where parents
affirmatively seek and agree to placement.

3. Provide protections for families signing placement
agreements by:

  • having DYFS give written and oral explanation
    of the rights, alternatives, and ramifications
    of placement.
  • having DYFS explore all in-home service options.
  • having DYFS explain before signing a placement
    agreement that parents are forfeiting the right
    to counsel for themselves and their children.
  • having DYFS advise families to consult with their
    own counsel before signing a placement agreement.

4. Ensure accountability for DYFS neglect or DYFS abuse
of services through well defined legislation.

5. Careful screening and hiring of individuals who are
sensitive to the human needs of children and their
families to be together as a family, and who will
provide DYFS services accordingly.

It is urged that if New Jersey’s legislators will not begin the needed reforms, as requested by their constituents or of their own initiative, then the Governor will recognize that her immediate executive order to do so is required.