Advocates Seek Partial Federal Takeover of Connecticut Child Welfare System

Citing the ongoing failure of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families to meet performance standards mandated by the settlement of a federal class action reform lawsuit brought against the state on behalf of approximately 6,000 children in state custody and thousands more at risk of entering state custody, the national advocacy group Children’s Rights and Connecticut co-counsel today asked for a partial federal takeover of the agency’s management.

In a notice submitted to counsel for DCF and the independent federal DCF court monitor in the case, known as Juan F. v. Rell, lawyers for the plaintiff children in the lawsuit assert that the state has failed to comply with court-ordered requirements related to planning for the treatment of children in foster care and providing adequate services. Because DCF has failed to act over an extended period, despite knowing of the problems, plaintiffs are asking the court to appoint a limited receiver to direct DCF’s work in these two areas until the agency reaches full compliance.

DCF’s ongoing problems in these areas were the subject of intensive negotiations in 2006 that led to the adoption, in March 2007, of a detailed action plan aimed at correcting them. More than a year later, according to reports issued by the court monitor, the agency is still adequately planning for the needs of only 51 percent of the children in its custody and providing adequate services for only 47.1 percent. The benchmarks mandated by the Juan F. settlement call for 90 percent compliance on the planning measure and 80 percent compliance on the provision of services.

Today’s move comes 11 months into the tenure of new DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton and her leadership team. (Hamilton’s position had remained vacant for more than seven months prior, following the December 2007 resignation of former Commissioner Darlene Dunbar.) In August 2007, Children’s Rights notified DCF that a continued lack of progress toward these benchmarks could trigger noncompliance proceedings under the terms of the exit plan developed in 2004 to guide the state through the final phases of reform required by the settlement of the lawsuit.

“As the commissioner of DCF openly admits, these benchmarks for reform can be achieved — but after 11 months at the helm, the new leadership team has failed to gain any traction on them,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “This is not about a need for more money at DCF. It’s about a need for effective management that can fix well-known systemic problems that are damaging the children in Connecticut’s care. And if this leadership team can’t effect necessary changes in the way DCF presently conducts its business, we need to ask the court to appoint someone who can.”

Today’s notice of noncompliance highlighted several ongoing failures at DCF:

  • DCF places too many children in orphanage-like facilities, rather than with families. As of November 2007, according to the most recent data available, 32 percent of children in DCF custody were living in group shelters and other non-family facilities — including approximately 300 children ages 12 and under.
  • DCF fails to recruit and retain foster parents. DCF has experienced a net loss of 58 foster homes since November 2006, despite an overall increase in the number of inquires by prospective foster parents. Current and prospective foster parents routinely cite the agency’s lack of support and respect as reasons for their reluctance to take in and continue to serve children in foster care.
  • DCF fails to move children out of state custody and into permanent homes. For approximately 25 percent of all children in DCF custody, DCF has failed to plan for placement in a permanent home, greatly reducing these children’s chances of being adopted. Many of these children are teenagers, who risk spending the rest of their childhoods in state custody until they “age out” when they turn 18, without a permanent family and without critical services to help them survive on their own.
  • DCF fails to meet children’s health care needs. During the last quarter of 2007, DCF failed to provide necessary mental health services to more than 35 percent of children in its custody, while failing to provide dental services to approximately 25 percent of children.

“We have tried to give Commissioner Hamilton ample time to get a handle on these problems, and we had hoped to see aggressive action from her leadership team,” said Steven M. Frederick, co-counsel with Children’s Rights and a partner in the Stamford law firm Wofsey, Rosen, Kweskin & Kuriansky, LLP. “While we would much prefer to resolve this without a contempt trial in federal court, there are simply too many children in Connecticut’s custody who aren’t getting the care they need and deserve — and we felt we had to take action on their behalf.”

Under a federal court order, lawyers for the plaintiffs and DCF officials must now begin a period of mandatory negotiations to try and resolve the issues. If an agreement is not reached during that time, the order requires the federal court to get involved and resolve the dispute.

MEDIA CONTACTS:
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210