DCF one year under new management: much work remains

A year into new management at the troubled Department of Children and Families, a report card issued by the court-ordered monitor outlines the "significant challenges" that remain before he is convinced abused and neglected children are in good hands with the state.

But, "This report demonstrates considerable progress as well as identifying significant challenges," Raymond Mancuso, the court monitor, said in his report card, issued Friday.

Joette Katz, who stepped down as a state Supreme Court justice to lead the agency, gave herself a goal of one year to turn around the agency enough to shed federal court supervision.

Thursday marked her one-year anniversary of running the $894 million agency responsible for the care of 4,700 children on any given day.

But according to the court monitor's report and the lead attorney in the "Juan F" class-action lawsuit that resulted in court oversight, Katz still has miles to go before claiming victory in turning the agency around.

DCF has been under federal court supervision for more than 20 years. Eight commissioners before Katz failed in reforming the vast, troubled agency.

One of the largest challenges is finding and retaining the foster families to sustain the "critical system reform[s]" the agency has begun. The department has promised to reduce the use of large group homes, or congregate placements, and bring most children living out-of-state home.

"The diversion from congregate care utilization is hampered by the lack of appropriate foster care resources," the court monitor's report reads, noting that the agency lost 35 foster homes over the past three months. "The lack of sufficient foster/adoptive resources remains the most significant barrier... Additional foster care and adoptive resources remain an essential component required to address the needs of children."

This loss of foster homes comes even after two recent attempted strategies, one under Katz's direction. DCF has had three years to add 850 foster placements; during this time, the agency has actually lost placements. Reports and surveys have indicated that many foster families have dropped out of the program because they feel disrespected and say they don't get the necessary services for their children from DCF.

In response to the report card, Katz wrote there are numerous "positive indicators of the changes we have put in place." But, she agrees that numerous challenges remain.

In comments at the end of the monitor's report, Katz wrote that to tackle the foster care dilemma, her focus on placing more children with family members will help alleviate some of the shortfall in traditional, stranger-placement foster homes. When Katz took office, the department had one of the worst rates in the country in placing children with family members. She's moved that rate from 15.3 percent of the 4,784 children being placed with family to 19 percent.

Ira Lustbader, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the "sweeping and impressive" changes Katz has thus far implemented have helped.

"She has recognized and owned the problems," he said. "These are really impressive initiatives so far, but a tremendous amount of work remains."

His proof: the needs of four out of 10 children in DCF custody are not being met, according to the court monitor's report.

"The numbers are creeping in the right direction now, which is good, but it's not enough to meet their needs," he said.

Katz makes no excuses.

"We must work together over the coming year to ensure these children transition to a safe, appropriate and stable placement that meets their needs," Katz wrote.

And Katz will have to work a little harder to maintain the progress, as she has agreed to a major shift in how the court monitor grades her.

Previously, the agency was given several days' notice of which children's cases the monitor would be inspecting. That is no longer the case -- "a take-home test vs. a blind sample," as Lustbader calls it.

"It was giving them the opportunity to clean up their files," he said.

Katz may have estimated it would take her one year, but Lustbader is optimistic that the end of court oversight could be in sight if the agency continues to head in the same direction.

"The eventual exit from this longstanding lawsuit is in her hands. It certainly could be during her tenure if she continues with this approach," he said.

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