New Jersey's child welfare officials have lost track of 110 children in cases of suspected abuse, with caseworkers checking their files in the wake of the brutal child abuse death of 7-year-old Faheem Williams, whose decomposed body was found in a plastic garbage bin.
Caseworkers have never investigated another 280 cases of alleged child abuse. The state's Division of Youth and Family Services has frozen welfare payments until the parents produce the missing children.
Gov. James E. McGreevey (D) held an emotional news conference here today. Occasionally pounding the lectern, he promised changes, from buying new computers to hiring more experienced supervisors and increasing training.
"In my entire life in public service, nothing I have encountered has personally shaken me as much as this tragedy," McGreevey said. "It's sickening."
But state officials and legislators have known of problems at the Division of Youth and Family Services for years. In 1998, then Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) released a report that said every corner of the child welfare agency was in crisis, with woes ranging from huge caseloads to children who were being shifted from foster family to foster family, often with little or no supervision.
"It is a very, very bad child welfare system," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, who is one of the nation's leading child welfare attorneys and whose organization, Children's Rights Inc., has brought a class action lawsuit against the state's foster care system. "The only thing that's changed since Whitman's report is that the number of children abused has gone up, as has the number of children who are being cynically ignored by the state."
In this particular case, Sherry Murphy, 41, a go-go dancer, was entrusted with the care of Faheem and his two brothers while their mother was in jail. Early in the morning last Saturday, Murphy's boyfriend discovered Raheem Williams, 7, and his brother Tyrone, 4, emaciated and living amid vomit and feces in Murphy's basement. The boys were hospitalized and, by Sunday, Raheem had told police that he had a brother whom "I haven't seen in a while."
When officers returned to the home, they found the decomposed body of Raheem's twin, Faheem. There has been a string of abuse and neglect allegations against the family, dating to 1996. A report in October 2001 that the boys had been burned and beaten by their family was not investigated.
The caseworker and supervisor in this case have been suspended with pay. Murphy was arrested on Thursday and charged with child endangerment.
"It was a mistake, a tragic error of judgment," McGreevey said.
Lowry emphasized, however, that New Jersey's problems are writ large across the nation. She compared the New Jersey problems with those of the District, where she brought a lawsuit that, in the 1990s, helped pitch the city's system into a court-monitored receivership.
Last month, a highly touted task force in Florida reported that it could not find more than 100 of 393 missing children after a search lasting more than 31/2 months. The group also said that an additional 220 children had disappeared from state custody since late August, when Gov. Jeb Bush (R) announced a plan to coordinate state agencies in a search.
With states now facing steeply declining revenue, many people fear that the problems could get worse. "If you have to cut snow removal or child welfare, what do you think the choice will be?" Lowry said. "I see a lot of problems coming down the road."