Advocate for children awaits Senate go-ahead
For Janet Rosenzweig, a commitment to kids that’s ‘in her DNA’
Janet Rosenzweig, acting commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families, in her office in Trenton Photo by Robert Wiener
March 23, 2010
For Janet Rosenzweig, a lifetime of working with children dates back to the time of her bat mitzva at the Rhawnhurst Jewish Community Center in northeast Philadelphia.
“My mom got me a job for the summer volunteering at the Federation of Jewish Agencies day care center, and that changed my life,” she said as she sat at the head of a long conference table in Trenton. “I saw all of these social workers and teachers dedicated to easing the pain of children, and I haven’t looked back.”
Now, decades later, Rosenzweig, 55, is awaiting State Senate confirmation as Gov. Chris Christie’s appointee as commissioner of the Department of Children and Families. Under the department’s jurisdiction is the Division of Youth and Family Services; it’s responsible for such areas as oversight of foster care for some 8,300 children, adoptions, and caseworkers and mental health care for vulnerable children and families.
If confirmed, Rosenzweig will work within Christie’s proposed austerity budget, one meant to halt what he called the state’s “fiscal hemorrhaging.”
Despite a 4 percent reduction in the department’s budget for fiscal year 2011, Rosenzweig said she is confident about its ability to serve its mission.
“What is not on the table are cuts in any of the services that undergird our critical mission — which is safety, permanency, and stability for kids,” she said.
There will be no cuts at DYFS, which employs 5,300 of her 7,000 workers. Throughout the years, DYFS has been plagued with allegations of mismanagement and neglect, including charges that some children in its foster care system have been seriously injured, or even killed, as a result of abuse and neglect.
“Our primary obligation is to react to such allegations,” she said. “The death of a child or any serious injury is a tragedy. Period. Not open for discussion. I would give anything to bring to my governor and the people of New Jersey the statement that we are the first people in the country to have zero deaths or injuries. If I can do that, and set that as a realistic goal, my life’s work would be done.”
Linda Meisel, who, as executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, has worked with Rosenzweig, gives her high marks as “very supportive of human services. She is very smart. I think she was a really good choice for this position.”
“One thing the Jewish community in general is concerned about is: Are services to children with special needs and mental-health issues going to be affected” by the governor’s intended budget cutbacks? Meisel told NJJN.
A ‘GEM’ philosophy
Rosenzweig spoke with NJJN of a career path that began with that stint as a volunteer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia until she started college.
After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Penn State University, she obtained a PhD from Rutgers University’s School of Social Work, then a master of arts at Harvard University’s School of Government.
One key inspiration was the late Ann Klein, New Jersey’s first commissioner of human services. “She developed a philosophy she called GEM — is it ‘good enough for me?’ That stuck.”
As director of the Mercer County Department of Human Services, Rosenzweig — who has a son — tested out that philosophy in a personal way.
“When we built a jail for kids, my standard was, ‘Would I let him spend the night here? Would I let him eat the food here?’”
Her answer: “When I worked there, absolutely. That is my goal here, too, but with so many more kids, it will not be easy to implement statewide. It is a standard that I hold myself to. That is just how I see good social work and good public service.”
Between 2001 and 2007, Rosenzweig was executive director of Prevent Child Abuse-New Jersey.
“Clearly there is a much higher prevalence of sexual abuse of children than the general public wants to accept. It happens in families of every socioeconomic status and it happens in institutions” regardless of what religion they are affiliated with, she said.
Rosenzweig said she was aware of “some allegations” of such abuse in Jewish communities, and would appreciate receiving specific complaints “that have enough information we can investigate.”
She said her department “would be very happy to work with representatives of the more insular Jewish community to develop tools that might be more effective” in reporting incidents of abuse in places that disdain taking problems to secular authorities.
“Our goal is for people to know there is help when they need it and to feel comfortable picking up a phone. We need to let the Jewish community know there is quality help available to support the families and communities where this is happening. We are here to help.
“We do not tolerate adult-and-child sex under any circumstances,” she said.
Rosenzweig also promised that her department would be active in prevention of adolescent suicide.
“Kids with gender identity and sexual orientation issues are at so much higher risk of mental health issues and suicide attempts than their peers,” she said. “The question for me is, ‘How do we support these kids through adolescence so that they come to a healthy, productive adult life?’ I get very concerned about the mental health implications of any kid who is ostracized, bullied, made to feel self-hate. No good can come of that to any human being.”
Between September 2008 and May 2009, Rosenzweig was acting executive director of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, a part-time job. During her confirmation hearings at the Senate Judiciary Committee, state Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Dist. 39) questioned her extensively about the organization, suggesting, he said, that its founders felt “there should not be any kind of inhibition of sexual relationships with infants, children, or others.”
During the hearing, after which she was confirmed, Rosenzweig said she was “unequivocally opposed to sexual encounters between adults and children.”
Rosenzweig has insisted she acted only as a financial adviser to the organization, and told NJJN, “The primary sex educator ought to be the parents.”
But, she said, she also believes “medically accurate age-appropriate information about sex should be part of any health curriculum.”
Said Rosenzweig: “In school, when a child is doing health education, to go from their eyes, their nose, and their mouth and to their knees and skip everything in between is a little disingenuous.
Rosenzweig lives in Yardley, Pa., with her husband, David Marcus, deputy director for newspaper services at the Associated Press in New York.
Her 26-year-old son, Zachary Smith, works in Colorado managing a skiing facility. Her brother, Larry Rosen, is vice president of the Ravens, Baltimore’s professional football team. Her sister, Marsha Pincus, teaches English in Philadelphia, where she was twice named “Teacher of the Year.”
All of this delights Rosenzweig’s mother, Shirley Feldbaum, a social worker who served at Philadelphia’s Corporation for the Aging and Jewish Family and Children’s Service.
“She gets to read about all three of her kids in the Jewish newspapers, and she’s thrilled. She was the original social worker in the family,” Rosenzweig said. “The public service, the good deeds — it’s all in our DNA.”
What Jews can do
“How can the Jewish community help me in my work?” Janet Rosenzweig asked rhetorically.
“We would love it if people became foster parents. But there are all kinds of other ways. Help us put a kid through college. Help us put a bunch of kids through college. Mentor kids as they move from high school into the adult world. Adolescence doesn’t end at 18 anymore.”
Approximately 70 percent of the children served by the Division of Youth and Family Services are under the age of 12, and most are placed with a foster/adoptive home or with relatives.
“We have 7,900 kids who do not have the mother or father that my kid has. We need the community to ask, ‘How can I help raise one of these kids and ease their transition into adulthood?’ If every congregation of every denomination in the state would say, ‘I’ll put a foster kid through college’ — wouldn’t be that a lovely thing? I love that idea.”
— ROBERT WIENER