Candidates agree DCF needs overhaul

Three Connecticut governors have failed to reform the state’s child welfare agency enough to end 19 years of federal supervision. Now it’s up to whoever takes over for Gov. M. Jodi Rell to reshape the $865 million bureaucracy.

All three gubernatorial candidates say money is not the problem. The state has budgeted $850.2 million for the current fiscal year, and the agency gets another $14.6 million in federal funding.

“It’s not money, it’s something else going wrong,” Democratic  nominee Dan Malloy said.

Malloy said he plans to completely shake up operation of the department, which has almost 3,500 full-time employees.

“We just about need to change everything we’ve been doing. … We have to change directions,” he said, adding there are “too many levels of decision making” to get anything done.

Would his shakeup include removing DCF Commissioner Susan I. Hamilton and launching a nationwide search for a replacement?

“Those decisions haven’t been made yet,” he said. But he did express misgivings about the job Hamilton, who was appointed by Rell in May 2007, has done so far.

“I’m sure she’s done the best she could,” Malloy said. “But having said that, she’s not going to be the commissioner who’s going to get that order lifted based on this performance.”

Earlier this week, in rejecting the state’s request for an end to federal oversight, U.S. District Court Judge Christopher F. Droney said DCF had made “commendable” progress in improving services to children, but still fell short of meeting the 22 criteria set out for lifting the 1991 consent decree establishing the court’s supervision.

The most recent report of the monitor appointed to oversee the agency says DCF met the needs of the children sampled between April and June just 53 percent of the time. These services measured include getting the child a dental visit, eyeglasses or therapy for victims of sexual or physical abuse.

The monitor also noted that some 1,000 children–a quarter of those in DCF custody–live in group homes rather than in family settings, and that DCF is not even halfway to meeting the goal set two years ago of adding 850 more foster homes.

“Foster homes, foster homes, foster homes,” Malloy said. “Whatever we’re doing to promote additional foster home opportunities, it’s a failure in this state.”

He called Rell’s decision to seek an end to court supervision “a mistake.”

Republican candidate Tom Foley said he agreed with Rell’s efforts to relieve the state from supervision, but added that he respects the judge’s ruling that more needs to be done and will do what it takes to comply.

“I don’t know why so many other governor’s haven’t succeeded at this,” Foley said. “That will change.”

“I would make sure DCF was performing at a level where we didn’t require federal supervision and oversight,” he said. “I will be more engaged.”

Foley also said funding is not the issue.

“That’s a lot of money,” Foley said of the DCF budget. “Just because that much is being spent doesn’t mean the job’s getting done … or you are spending a lot more than you need to. We need to figure out how we can do it as inexpensively as possible while still meeting this standard.”

He, too, said he is not prepared to say whether Hamilton should be replaced.

“I will pick an excellent commissioner. I will make sure they make this a priority,” he said.

But Independent gubernatorial candidate Tom Marsh has a clear opinion on DCF leadership.

“Sometimes you have to change the coach and the whole team will do better,” he said. “I am going to be looking for people with a history of success.”

Marsh called the high number of children living in group homes “one of the saddest failures of our state government… Nobody disagrees that we need to provide better care.”

“I think we are spending plenty of money on DCF,” Marsh added. “And I haven’t really seen any documentation that we are really improving. The horror stories continue. I am sure there are others states out there that are doing a better job and are more efficient.”

Children’s advocates generally agree that more money isn’t the solution to DCF’s problems but less money could unravel the progress that has been made. When the class-action lawsuit known as “Juan F.” which led to court oversight was filed in 1989, one of the complaints was that the agency was underfunded. Since the consent agreement was entered into two years later, the DCF budget has more than tripled.

But the advocates do worry that if DCF is released from court supervision, the agency could become the target of budget cuts.

“Right now, that department is for the most part shielded from cuts,” said Martha Stone, one of the attorneys in the Juan F. case. “The department can’t afford to offer budget cuts. They just can’t, if they do then you are talking about getting rid of or limiting important services. … Thousands of kids will be placed at risk if DCF is allowed out of this.”