New Child Welfare Commissioner Delivers Progress, But Significant Problems Remain at Agency

(Hartford) –The Connecticut Department of Children & Families (DCF) continues to make headway in reforming the state’s long-troubled child welfare system, according to the third-quarter, federal court-appointed report, which was spurred by the national children’s advocacy group Children’s Rights.

But the monitoring report also identifies major challenges still facing the new administration — most significantly, the agency is only fully meeting the basic needs of abused and neglected children 60 percent of the time.

Under Commissioner Joette Katz, the agency achieved 16 of the 22 areas of court-ordered system-wide improvements to better serve children and families who are the subject of abuse or neglect. These reforms include minimizing traumatic multiple moves of foster children from one home or facility to another, promptly and safely reuniting foster children with their parents, and when that’s not possible, promptly finding them permanent adoptive homes.

“We continue to be extremely impressed with the Commissioner’s ability to take on remaining problems at DCF that are harmful to kids, especially in the first three quarters of her tenure,” said Ira Lustbader, Associate Director of Children’s Rights. “But there’s still a long way to go.”

On the positive side, the report (PDF) found that DCF significantly reduced the state’s historic over-reliance on institutional placements for young foster kids, cutting the number of children age 12 and younger housed in institutions and facilities from 201 in January 2011 to 105. The department also increased the use of relatives to care for abused and neglected kids, from 15 percent of foster children in January, to 19 percent by the end of September.

“Commissioner Katz is dismantling the agency’s expensive and often harmful overuse of institutions and facilities for foster kids, something prior administrations simply ignored,” said Lustbader.

Last January, Joette Katz stepped down from the bench as a State Supreme Court Justice to become the new head of the Connecticut Department of Children & Families. The prior DCF leadership engaged in an expensive and lengthy court battle to prematurely exit from the ongoing federal court order. The federal court firmly rejected those efforts because the state had not accomplished what it promised to do for kids and families.

Despite progress, the report makes clear that major problems remain. The report reviewed hundreds of children’s cases and ranked the overall quality of caseworkers’ visits with abused and neglected children. The results were dismal, with 24 percent of cases graded poor or adverse. Only 32 percent of children consistently received the required twice monthly visits.

Additionally, the report notes continued “service gaps” that include mental health services, substance abuse and domestic violence services, and critical life-skills training to allow older foster children to live independently when they are discharged from state custody. Without critical services and support before they leave DCF custody, many foster youths are unequipped to lead productive lives as adults. They are left vulnerable to high incidences of poor educational attainment, homelessness, deterioration and mental illness, incarceration, drug or alcohol dependency, and needing public assistance.

“With the overall statewide results of the agency’s ability to meet children’s needs scoring at only 60 percent compliance, much work needs to be done in 2012,” said Lustbader.

Children in the class action known as Juan F. v. Rell, originally filed in 1989, are represented by Children’s Rights and local co-counsel Steven Frederick of the Stamford law firm Wofsey Rosen Kweskin & Kuriansky. The case was filed against state officials 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.

For more information about Children’s Rights ongoing campaign to reform the Connecticut child welfare system, please visit www.childrensrights.org/connecticut.