Compelling ACLU Report Exposes Deeply Compromised Lead Testing of Vulnerable Children in New Jersey

October 25, 2005 12:00 am

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IRVINGTON, NJ – Thousands of New Jersey children are at risk of lead poisoning, according to a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association for Children of New Jersey and a coalition of advocates, and blame for the tragic state of affairs rests solidly with the lack of leadership exhibited by the state government. Yet a groundbreaking pilot study shows that there are things that can be done to increase testing and treatment.

“”Before our involvement in 2000, the state paid little attention to childhood lead poisoning,”” said Robin Dahlberg, an attorney with the ACLU and lead author of the report. “”Although a 1996 state law requires the state’s public health department to take steps to ensure that every New Jersey child is tested for lead at the age of one and again at the age of two, the health department had done almost nothing to implement that law.””

According to the report, in 2000 the state health department had identified only one-third of the estimated 18,000 children under the age of six suffering from lead poisoning. Only 50 percent of those were receiving necessary follow-up treatment. Unable to engage the health department, the advocates went to the state’s Medicaid agency. The Medicaid agency, in turn, invited the ACLU, the Association for Children of New Jersey and others to work collaboratively to increase the lead testing of Medicaid-enrolled children.

“”We are excited about the results of this pilot program that indicate that we can increase the number of children getting tested,”” said Mayor Wayne Smith of Irvington, where one in every ten children under the age of six is lead-poisoned. “”There is a critical need for state government to roll out the resources so that more children in Irvington and around the state can get tested.””

Despite this progress, childhood lead poisoning in New Jersey continues to be a major problem. The percentage of New Jersey children who are lead poisoned is almost twice the national average. The state health department has still not fully implemented the 1996 state law. Roughly fifty percent of all one and two year olds have not been tested for lead.

Over the last five years, the group has piloted a number of different reform efforts. It encouraged doctors to provide lead testing in their offices, trained day care center staff to educate parents and caretakers about the need to have children tested and held Medicaid Managed Care Organizations and Medicaid providers more accountable. Much of the group’s work has focused in Camden City and the Township of Irvington.
“”Screening is the first step toward getting children the healthcare they need to treat the very serious health effects of childhood lead poisoning,”” said Mary Coogan, assistant director of the Association for Children of New Jersey. “”This pilot clearly shows we can improve our testing of children and subsequent treatment. This effort should be rolled out statewide, with active support from New Jersey’s next governor.””

As a result of the coalition’s efforts:

  • In 2000, 34 percent of children between the ages of 18 and 29 months enrolled in a Medicaid HMO were tested for lead; in 2004, 54 percent were tested.
  • In 2000, only one of the 11 Federally Qualified Health Care centers audited by the state’s Medicaid agency had a screening rate over 90 percent; by 2005, 11 centers had screening rates of over 90 percent.
  • In June 2002, only 59 of the 150 Medicaid providers in Irvington and Camden City provided lead screens in their offices; by January 2004, 121 tested for lead on-site.
  • During the 2002 – 2003 school year, 80 percent of the 1,430 children in the Irvington Abbott preschool programs and 60 percent of the more than 1,000 children enrolled in the Camden County Head Start programs were tested for lead. Sixteen of the 23 Irvington centers had screening rates of over 80 percent. Seven of the 12 Camden County Head Start programs had screening rates of over 50 percent. Three of the seven had screening rates of over 70 percent.

“”Many of Legal Services’ clients are the most likely to be harmed by lead poisoning and the least likely to be informed about its effects or to be capable of removing themselves from the danger,”” said Linda Garibaldi of Legal Services of New Jersey. “”They are families just struggling to survive whose children are often being slowly poisoned by a killer they don’t even know about.””

The ACLU, the Association for Children of New Jersey, Legal Services of New Jersey and the Office of the Child Advocate, called upon the state health department to implement the 1996 state law and to work with the state Medicaid agency to institutionalize and expand upon the reforms and changes initiated in Irvington and Camden City.

The report is available online at www.aclu.org/racial-justice_prisoners-rights_drug-law-reform_immigrants-…

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