Judge says DCF must remain under federal court supervision

Court oversight of how Connecticut investigates and cares for abused and neglected children is still necessary after nearly two decades of federal supervision, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The state’s efforts to improve the performance of the state Department of Children and Families was “commendable,” but they fell short of requirements laid out in a consent decree in 1991, U.S. District Court Judge Christopher F. Droney wrote.

“The end may very well be in sight,” Droney wrote, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has cautioned that federal oversight of state services should be temporary. “On the other hand, this case will not end until the state has fully met its responsibilities in addressing the needs of these children.”

Droney, who was named to the bench six years after DCF was placed under court supervision, concluded that “children in the state’s care face unneeded delay and disruption, and continue to go without important services.”

Reacting to the ruling, Gov. M. Jodi Rell said, “the state is committed to continuing the significant improvements made over the past two decades in services for children and their families, regardless of the ultimate outcome of this legal process. We must never settle for anything less than the best for the children in our care.”

Ann H. Rubin, representing Rell’s administration, argued earlier in the day that the state is not violating any federal laws in the care it provides, so the mandates outlined in the consent decree and the more recent renegotiated agreements should be vacated.

“Every aspect of Connecticut’s child welfare system has been completely reformed,” she said, adding “there is virtually no chance of returning” to the conditions that existed when the case originated in 1989, when William A. O’Neill was governor.

But Ira Lustbader of Children’s Right, one of the groups representing plaintiffs in the “Juan F.” class-action lawsuit that led to federal oversight, told the judge that DCF is “still not meeting the most basic delivery” of service needs.

The case has continued through the administrations of three other governors: Lowell P. Weicker Jr., John G. Rowland and Rell.

The most recent court monitor’s report shows DCF met the needs of the children sampled between April and June just 53 percent of the time — well short of the 80 percent goal.

“That’s what they agreed to, that hasn’t happened,” Lustbader said, pointing to a chart in the courtroom showing that during the past four years, DCF has failed to meet the 80 percent goal in even one quarterly report. “They’re not even close.”

These services measured include getting the child a dental visit, eyeglasses or therapy for victims of sexual or physical abuse.

Lustbader also argued that the 80-percent requirement is too lenient, saying that translates to around 1,000 children in DCF care that are allowed to slip through the cracks.

“That’s not onerous enough,” he said.

Jeanne Milstein, the state’s child advocate, echoed Lustbader.

“It’s time to get the job done,” she said.

The ruling did say that because of the progress made by DCF, an end to federal oversight may be in sight and directs Lustbader to meet with DCF to determine if adjustments should be made to the consent decree, specifically how progress is to be measured.

DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton said in a statement that she is “disappointed” with the decision, but is “encouraged by the positive comments regarding, in the language of the Court, the ‘considerable progress’ made by the Department.”

Lustbader said during a interview following the decision that he will follow the court’s direction and talk about the requirements, “But we don’t see any flaws in them. We are not looking to lower the bar.”

This is the first time since the 1991 decree that any administration has attempted to relieve themselves from its requirements, Lustbader said.

“There is still a long way to go. They need to live up to their obligations, not continually try to avoid them or make a last-ditch effort by this administration to walk away from them,” he said.

A new governor will be elected in November and take office in January. The new administration will be the fourth to try to convince the court that federal oversight no longer is necessary.