A federal judge is warning New Jersey not to cut funding for its child protection and foster care system to make up for a huge deficit caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judge Stanley R. Chesler oversees a 17-year settlement by New Jersey that was the result of a class-action lawsuit filed by the groundbreaking advocacy group Children’s Rights.

“Funding for the department cannot by itself make it achieve correct results, but denying it of adequate funding will necessarily doom it in the long run to the problems it had before,” Chester said during a court hearing via Zoom this week.

The lawsuit grew out of two horrific cases of abuse against foster kids that grabbed national headlines in 2003. In one, a boy’s body was found in the basement of his Newark foster home, and his two brothers were chained to a bed nearby. Then, in south Jersey, four boys were found starving in Collingswood, stunted by years of malnutrition.

It soon became clear that the entire child welfare system was dysfunctional. The agency’s budget had been hollowed out over a period of many years, leaving it with archaic computers, a shortage of foster homes, few inspections of those homes, and social workers with caseloads of 100 families.

“When I first got involved there was no capacity of the workers to do the job they were being asked to do,” said Judith Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C. She was appointed by the court to monitor the state’s progress in fixing the child welfare system and has been doing so ever since.

Today, caseloads are down to 15 per worker, and Meltzer says New Jersey has come tantalizingly close to making all 48 changes set forth in the settlement.

But now she is worried that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to derail progress. It’s a concern she shares with the New Jersey Commissioner for the Department of Children and Families.

“We've had a great impact on both staff and the families that we serve,” said Christine Norbut Byer.

The commissioner has one team responding in person to crisis situations, while the rest of the caseworkers keep contact with families through video-conferencing. The usual visits that foster kids have with their biological families can’t happen either, but they can see their families more often on video, she said.

Caseworkers have been able to keep up, Norbut Byer says, because calls to the state hotline are down.

“They dropped to the lowest monthly volume since the hotline was established back in 2004,” Norbut Byer said. “So the fact that the calls to the hotline were reduced certainly was a concern.”

Call volume dropped by 60 percent, mostly because schools are closed and they use the hotline most. The number of reports by law enforcement has also gone down, and Norbut Byer hopes that means her caseworkers aren’t missing a spike in abuse.

Even requests for support services from families are down. Overall, that means that fewer children are being moved into foster care.

“That's pretty significant in that we had already been reducing the number of kids entering foster care,” Norbut Buyer said. “And New Jersey has a very low rate of entry for children in foster care nationally. But we saw a further reduction.”

It will take a few months before the monitoring will pick up any setbacks from the pandemic for child welfare in New Jersey. But a much longer-lasting problem is the budget crisis caused by the $10 billion drop in revenue caused by the shutdown of the state’s economy.

Judge Chesler set the semi-annual hearing to coincide with the state budget negotiations. It was attended by Meltzer, Norbut Beyer, and the organization that brought the suit 17 years ago. But Chesler had a message for the governor and the state legislature: The child welfare budget must be protected.

“Failure to do that will create a situation where it is indeed possible we are going to regress,” Chesler said. “And this court is committed to assuring that that does not happen. “

The judge can’t require the Governor and the State Legislature to protect the child welfare system from budget cuts. But he can order the state to meet caseload standards and any of the other benchmarks that are part of the legal settlement.

The legislature passed a bill this week to borrow $9.9 billion dollars and approved a stop-gap budget, which essentially delays making any tough decisions until September.