DCF report card: Major problems linger

A foster child in state custody needed eyeglasses, but the agency didn’t make it happen.

An abused child needed counseling but faced delays in getting an appointment.

These children are not alone, reports the federal court monitor of the state’s Department of Children and Families.

Of the 55 children in state custody whose cases were reviewed between January and March, the court monitor’s office found that DCF failed to provide 21 of the children with the necessary education, medical and/or psychological care.

These shortfalls affected “the health, safety or well being of the children and families,” Raymond Mancuso, the court monitor, reported this week.

Gaps in serving the needs of the 4,000 children in DCF care on any given day has been a decades-long problem. The agency has been under federal court supervision for more than 20 years following the “Juan F” class-action lawsuit.

And Mancuso is not convinced that DCF is close to fixing these problems.

He writes that a host of issues — including state budget cuts, too few foster homes and a drop in the number of social workers — are causing the problems to linger. Over the last three fiscal years, the agency’s budget has been cut by 5 percent, to $825 million; and since July 2011, staff has been reduced by 7 percent.

“The state’s reduction in DCF front-line staffing… has negatively impacted the quality of service,” he writes.

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz’s strategy to reform the agency includes keeping more children with their families and out of group homes and other institutions.

And while fewer children are living in large group settings, Mancuso writes that this effort can succeed only if the necessary medical, educational and psychological services are available in the community.

The children “must have timely access to a range of effective services to allow them to safely remain in family settings… The Department will be hard pressed to address these and other core needs adequately.”

Mancuso also reports that the lack of services mean that some children are lingering in inappropriate settings. Of the 40 cases reviewed by his office of children living in temporary, short-term housing, 12 children had lived there longer than six months.

Ira Lustbader, associate director of the national advocacy group Children’s Rights, which represents the plaintiffs in the “Juan F” lawsuit, originally filed in 1989, called this latest report card “disappointing.”

“The state must redouble its efforts to tackle major issues like getting children mental health treatment and taking steps to find them permanent, loving homes,” he said.

The agency succeeded in getting some of the state cuts restored for the fiscal year that began Monday. The budget that was passed includes $10.3 million in new money to pay for mental health and trauma services and support for foster parents.

Katz, the DCF commissioner, wrote in response to the report card that providing for the needs for children in her care “continues to challenge us and requires that we press forward on further improvements in how we engage families in our work… There are serious challenges that we must address.”

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