In 1989, Children’s Rights filed a class action lawsuit to overhaul Connecticut’s child welfare system, on behalf of approximately 6,000 children in state custody and thousands more at risk of entering state custody. The federal complaint identified numerous, persistent problems within the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF), including:
- Grossly inadequate child protective services. At the time of filing, reports of abuse and neglect were not investigated timely or adequately, and children were frequently left in dangerous situations;
- Failure to move children quickly into adoptive homes, resulting in children languishing for years in state custody; and
- Overburdened and untrained caseworkers. At the time of filing, staggering caseloads, inadequate training and high staff turnover made it nearly impossible for DCF caseworkers to ensure the safety and well-being of foster children.
In 1991, Children’s Rights and Connecticut officials reached a settlement agreement mandating top-to-bottom reform. Infrastructure improvements in the initial years of the reform effort included staff increases, the development of a training academy and data system improvements, but outcomes for children were slow to improve. In 2003, after DCF repeatedly failed to implement court-ordered reforms in many key areas, Children’s Rights sought to hold Defendants in contempt of court. Negotiations followed and Children’s Rights obtained an unprecedented court order in which the state voluntarily transferred management authority over the child welfare system to the federal court. In early 2004, a comprehensive exit plan of 22 “outcome measures” was developed, which details the necessary reforms and improvement benchmarks that DCF is required to meet.
Since then, DCF has made significant improvements such as (1) meeting caseload limits for caseworkers responsible for foster children and for investigating child abuse; (2) improving the speed and quality of child abuse investigations; (3) minimizing moves among foster placements; (4) preventing overcrowding in foster homes and facilities; and (5) ensuring that caseworkers visit children regularly. Upon the resignation of the DCF Court Monitor (who was given the management authority in 2003), management authority was returned to the state in the fall of 2005. Currently, DCF has met 16 of the 22 outcome measures and is close to meeting another four measures.
However, despite the progress, substantial problems remain in DCF meeting the critical outcome measures of treatment planning and meeting children’s service needs (such as basic health care needs, placing children with families rather than allowing overstays in group homes and emergency facilities, and appropriately moving children toward permanent homes and out of state custody). These two outcome measures encompass much of DCF’s core obligations to children. Thus, in May 2008, after a long period of negotiations failed to produce a new sense of urgency to address the longstanding problems, Children’s Rights triggered contempt proceedings to expedite reform in these areas.
Following months of negotiations, the parties reached a stipulated agreement, approved and ordered into effect in July 2008 by Senior U.S. District Judge Alan H. Nevas, requiring DCF to take aggressive action. Under the terms of this corrective action plan, DCF now works collaboratively with a technical assistance committee of national experts to reduce its harmful over-reliance on non-family group homes and emergency facilities to house children in state custody; strengthen its efforts to recruit, retain, and support an adequate pool of foster families; take heightened action to address the unmet needs of thousands of children languishing in DCF custody; and clear its backlog of overdue health care screenings and treatment for children in foster care.
In January 2009, the Plaintiffs and state officials agreed to modify the July 2008 court order to expand the reach of newly created heightened case reviews of children “stuck” in system.
Children’s Rights continues to serve as a watchdog over the agency’s progress in these areas and will continue to work with the State to address problems and expedite reform until it is in full compliance with the court-ordered exit plan.