As DCF challenges oversight, report describes unmet needs

As the state Department of Children and Families prepares to ask a court to end federal oversight of its operations, a new report says the agency is still not meeting the needs of many of the abused and neglected children in its care.

DCF will begin arguing in federal court next week that it has made dramatic progress in improving its services, and nearly two decades of court supervision should be ended.

But child advocates say Thursday’s report by the court monitor demonstrates that oversight continues to be a “necessary safety net.”

“DCF continues to fail, according to the data,” said Jeanne Milstein, the state’s child advocate. “They may have made tremendous strides but they are still failing.”

The quarterly report outlines both the state’s continued lack of foster homes–one out of every four children are placed in congregate care–and the lack of medical and mental health treatment for too many of the 4,000 children in DCF care. Overall, DCF adequately met the needs of children in just over half the cases reviewed, the report said–a decline from more than two-thirds in the previous reporting period.

DCF says in its motion to vacate court oversight that “monumental” improvements have been accomplished, including a two-thirds reduction in social-worker caseloads and a 31 percent decrease in children in state care. In December 2009, the average social-worker was handling 11 cases compared to more than 30 cases previously.

DCF Commissioner Susan I. Hamilton emphasized positive findings in the report, saying the agency’s reform effort “has led to important improvements in the lives of Connecticut children and families.”

She highlighted a decrease of 7 percent in the number of children removed from their homes from 2008 to 2009, an increase in the number of children in post-secondary education, and a reduction in delays in discharging children from hospitals.

But Milstein called those items “window dressing,” and said the report shows the agency is failing in providing what she called “fundamental services.” In a quarter of the cases sampled, for example, the report found that children’s medical, dental and education needs were met in an “untimely and insufficient” way.

“Foster kids aren’t getting doctor visits when they need them, dentist visits, glasses when they need them or the other appropriate supports,” she said.

The report also outlines the state’s lack of foster parents and DCF’s significant failure to meet even half of the target of adding 850 foster family homes by April of this year to reduce the state’s dependence on congregate care.

“The lack of sufficient foster/adoptive resources is the most significant barrier to timely discharge,” the report says.

DCF earlier this year launched a “We all have love to give” campaign aimed at recruiting new foster parents.

But Milstein and others said the problem isn’t recruiting new foster parents, it’s keeping them.

“They just don’t treat foster parents well. They call for help and no one is on the other end helping them,” she said, adding she routinely hears of foster parents not being provided the resources they need.

Jean Fiorito, executive director of Connecticut Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents, said while DCF has improved, much still needs to be done to retain foster parents.

“Foster parents talk to us all the time and say that they are not respected by some of the DCF workers. Some workers just don’t get how precious these parents are,” she said. “Too frequently these parents are saying ‘we are not going to put up with this anymore.'”

Federal oversight of DCF dates back to 1991 when DCF entered an agreement with attorneys representing children in DCF care, including Children’s Rights, on behalf of the children in the class-action “Juan F” case.

On Wednesday, federal Judge Christopher F. Droney will begin hearing Gov. M. Jodi Rell administration’s request to vacate federal oversight at the U.S. District Court in Hartford.

The Center for Children’s Advocacy, whose executive director was co-counsel in the “Juan F” case, also opposes ending court oversight and filed a friend of the court brief requesting DCF’s request be rejected, as did several other advocates.

Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights, said Thursday’s report “shows that DCF is still failing to achieve court-ordered improvements in critical areas that directly impact children’s lives.”