Under New Court Order, Connecticut Must Act Aggressively to Address Persistent Child Welfare Failures

BRIDGEPORT, CT — Two months after the national advocacy group Children’s Rights and Connecticut co-counsel triggered noncompliance proceedings against the state of Connecticut under the terms of the court-enforceable federal class action settlement mandating the comprehensive reform of the state’s child welfare system, Senior U.S.District Judge Alan H. Nevas today approved and ordered into effect a new corrective action plan to fix persistent problems in the state’s treatment of abused and neglected children.

As measured under the required outcomes mandated by the settlement of the class action lawsuit, known as Juan F. v. Rell, Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) currently fails to provide adequate services and planning for the needs of nearly half the children in its custody. Today’s court order requires DCF to take aggressive action to correct these longstanding problems.

Under its terms, DCF must reduce its expensive and often harmful overreliance 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 find permanent homes and 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.

“After dragging its feet for more than a year on issues critical to the well-being of Connecticut’s abused and neglected children, DCF has finally made a serious commitment to address them,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “This also brings heightened public accountability to ensure that progress is made and that the children in DCF’s custody receive the care and services they need, and we will be watching very closely to make sure that DCF makes the improvements required by this federal court order.”

The corrective action plan resulted from two months of negotiations initiated after Children’s Rights and its Connecticut co-counsel called for a partial federal takeover of DCF until the agency reaches full compliance with the terms of Juan F. settlement. Among the requirements of the new court order:

  • DCF must reduce its reliance on non-family group homes and emergency facilities in housing abused and neglected children. Connecticut currently houses more than 30 percent of the children in its custody in non-family group homes, emergency facilities, and institutions, far exceeding the national benchmark of 18 percent. The new court order targets a seven-percent increase in the number of children placed with families over the next year and three-percent increases each year thereafter, with strict limits and rare exceptions for the use of non-family placements. A joint expert study by an independent Technical Advisory Committee and DCFwill make recommendations for revising existing group placement policies and phasing out group facilities deemed inappropriate or unnecessary.
  • DCF must step up its recruitment and retention of foster families. Following years of net losses in the number of available foster families in Connecticut, the new court order targets a minimum net gain of 350 new licensed foster homes by June 2009 and an additional net gain of 500 by June 2010. New recruitment and retention plans must be approved by the independent Technical Advisory Committee, and must include specific plans for improving the agency’s responsiveness to and support of foster parents throughout the state.
  • DCF must conduct an intensive review of the service needs of children “stuck” in state custody. The new court order identifies eight categories among approximately 1,500-2,000 children stuck in inappropriateDCF placements and circumstances, including children who have languished for too long in emergency SAFEHomes and inpatient hospital facilities and older children for whom DCF has failed to find permanent homes, placing them at serious risk of spending the rest of their childhood in state custody. Intensive reviews overseen by the independent DCF monitor appointed by Judge Nevas will begin within the next 60 days, with follow-up reviews every 90 days to address any unmet needs.
  • DCF must clear its backlog of overdue health screenings and treatment for children in its custody.Under the new corrective action plan, DCF must identify all children who are overdue for required medical, dental, mental health, vision, hearing, and developmental screenings, and promptly provide the required screenings and any necessary treatment. Under the new court order, the unavailability of a Medicaid provider must not delay treatment; DCF must pay for any needed health services from private doctors at market rates if necessary.

“Importantly, DCF recognizes that these problems can be fixed and these new obligations can be achieved,” said Steven M. Frederick, co-counsel with Children’s Rights and a partner at the Stamford law firm of Wofsey, Rosen, Kweskin & Kuriansky LLP. “Now they must deliver on these promises to Connecticut’s most vulnerable children.”

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. In August, after new DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton filled a lengthy vacancy since prior DCF Commissioner Darlene Dunbar resigned in December of 2006, Children’s Rights notified DCF that a continued lack of progress toward these benchmarks could trigger noncompliance proceedings under the terms of an exit plan developed in 2004 to guide the state through the final phases of reform required by the Juan F. settlement. Citing a lack of any progress after almost a year under the new DCF leadership, Children’s Rights and Connecticut co-counsel asked the federal court to appoint a limited receiver to take over DCF’s management with respect to these measures in May 2008.