Connecticut Backslides on Child Welfare Reform, Fails to Provide Adequate Services to Abused and Neglected Kids

HARTFORD, CT — Just two weeks after the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights took legal action to stop Connecticut officials from shuttering critical foster care prevention services for thousands of vulnerable children statewide, a new progress report on a long-running, court-ordered effort to reform the entire state child welfare system shows Connecticut’s performance headed in the wrong direction on several measures critical to the well-being of abused and neglected kids.

According to the report (PDF), covering the period from July 1 through September 30, 2009, and issued late Tuesday by the independent monitor appointed by a federal court to track the reforms, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) is adequately planning for and meeting the basic service needs of only a little more than half the children who depend on it for protection and care.

DCF has also posted a precipitous drop in the percentage of eligible children it is quickly and safely returning home to their parents — from 71.9 percent of the cases studied during the previous review period to 56 percent during this one.

Additionally, despite a court-enforceable agreement negotiated by Children’s Rights and state officials in 2008 that required DCF to undertake a massive foster family recruitment campaign, DCF is currently showing a net loss of 41 foster homes off a baseline taken last year. The agreement, which averted contempt proceedings initiated by Children’s Rights to address DCF’s continued poor performance on this and other measures, called for the state to produce a net gain of 350 foster homes by the end of June 2009.

“DCF has broken one commitment after another to the federal court and to the children it is supposed to serve, promising dramatic improvements in the care and treatment it offers and failing to deliver time and again,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “The ongoing inability of DCF’s leadership to adequately meet the basic needs of Connecticut’s abused and neglected kids only underscores how deeply unwise it is for state officials to consider further service cuts.”

The reforms reported on by the independent monitor — and the quarterly reports themselves — are required under court orders secured by Children’s Rights and local co-counsel through a class action they brought against the state on behalf of the approximately 6,000 children in the custody of the Connecticut child welfare system and thousands more at risk of entering custody.

The current court orders under the 1991 settlement of that class action set 22 court-enforceable benchmarks for reform, including measures related to keeping children safe in foster care, quickly and safely reunifying kids with their families or finding them adoptive homes, providing for children’s basic service needs, avoiding overcrowding in foster homes, meeting standards for caseloads and visitation among child welfare workers who monitor kids, and improving outcomes for children who have left state custody.

Although DCF had previously achieved and sustained 17 of the 22 benchmarks, yesterday’s report finds the agency meeting just 15 — the state’s worst performance since Susan Hamilton was appointed commissioner of DCF in June 2007.

Children’s Rights took additional action against the agency on December 8, 2009, asking the federal judge in the ongoing case to block budget cuts ordered unilaterally by Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell that would have closed a successful and widely used family preservation and foster care prevention program to new participants — placing countless children at risk of serious harm.

Although the state agreed at a court hearing on December 16 not to stop intakes into the program for the moment, it has signaled that it will continue to challenge Children’s Rights’ move to keep it open. A hearing on that matter has been scheduled for January 28, 2010.

Steven Frederick of the Stamford law firm Wofsey Rosen Kweskin & Kuriansky serves as the children’s co-counsel on the case.

More information about Children’s Rights’ efforts to reform Connecticut child welfare — and a complete archive of documents related to the case — can be found at www.childrensrights.org/connecticut.