Dino Depina has had social workers who seldom look at his school grades.
“Case workers don’t have enough time to,” said Depina, a Norwich teen who has been in foster care since he was 11. “I say, how about lowering the case loads.”
During a conference last week at the state Capitol complex, Depina’s remarks caused a roomful of social workers, child advocates, service providers and other foster children to erupt in applause.
It’s not the first time this issue has been highlighted. The federal court monitor overseeing the Department of Children and Families first identified the problem to legislators last spring.
Last week, monitor Raymond Mancuso said the problem has intensified.
“The situation has worsened,” he wrote in his quarterly report covering July through September. “Even extraordinary efforts by social workers and social work supervisors cannot compensate for the system-level problems that persist.”
A spokesman for the agency said Tuesday the agency is working to resolve the issue.
The agency has been under federal court supervision for more than two decades following the “Juan F” class-action lawsuit filed in 1989 that documented the state's failure to adequately care for abused and neglected children.
Since January 2011, the department has seen a 29 percent reduction in caseload-carrying social workers, a 398-person reduction of front-line staff. Agency wide, the department has, net, 326 fewer staff members (which includes social workers and other positions) since fiscal 2011 -- a 9 percent drop.
For example, several of the 55 children whose cases were reviewed last quarter needed counseling but faced delays in getting an appointment. Another child needed eyeglasses, but the agency didn’t make it happen.
Of the 55 cases reviewed between the months of July through September, 18 children did not have all of their “priority" needs met. Broken down by specific needs (i.e. educational screenings, placement in a group home, getting a doctor’s appointment, etc.) these 55 children collectively had 215 needs not met.
Agency officials and the governor’s budget office have said the reduction in the number of social workers is justified because the total number of children in state custody has continually decreased -– by 816 children over the last three years, or a 17 percent drop.
The agency has accomplished this by moving children home from out-of-state facilities and large group homes and diverting low-risk cases to private providers to provide necessary services while keeping children with their families.
“The department’s staff have done a fantastic job assimilating and implementing the many changes. Staff have embraced these reforms and rallied our agency around the principles of family-centered and strengths-based practice,” DCF Commissioner Joette Katz wrote in her response to the report.
These initiatives have drawn the praise of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families.
"The state succeeded in achieving major systemic change," Joseph Bock of the agency wrote the governor last fall. "This is an important milestone in our ongoing work to support the safety, permanency, and well-being of Connecticut's most vulnerable children."
While the agency’s recent reforms have led to fewer investigations taking place and fewer children ending up in state custody (saving the state millions), the court monitor and other child advocates worry that the agency’s efforts to divert less-severe cases to nonprofit providers have left workers with caseloads of 100 percent difficult and demanding cases.
On any given day, social workers are responsible for ensuring that 11 to 15 children receive the housing, medical, psychological and education services they require.
"There needs to be dollars put into the system... so these children get the one-on-one attention they need," said Ellen Shemitz, the leader of Connecticut Voices for Children, an advocacy group.
A spokesman for the department said they are working on it.
"We are going to try and address the caseloads," DCF Spokesman Gary Kleblatt said.
While applauding the agency's reforms to date, Mancuso writes it has not been enough to keep more kids with their families or in other community placements if services are unavailable to them there.
His report points to specific examples where several of these children are placed on wait lists for things.
“The need to provide additional mental health and permanency services remains. The thousands of children being diverted from congregate care need access to timely community-based services and the relatives who have stepped forward in increasing numbers need sufficient support services in order to safely maintain children in the community,” Mancuso wrote.
Ira Lustbader -- associate director of the national advocacy group Children's Rights, which represents the plaintiffs in the "Juan F" lawsuit that prompted court monitoring 22 years ago –- agrees there is a void in services currently available for these vulnerable children.
“There continue to be real problems,” he said. “There is a continuing shortage and delays of getting kids mental health treatment. There are kids stuck without critical health services… There doesn’t appear to be enough programs to fit the need.”
State officials have noticed.
Last week, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Katz held a press conference to highlight their plans to focus on the availability of mental-health services for children in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Katz "is working with providers now to establish how services can be expanded,” Kleblatt, the DCF spokesman, said.
For those in care, said Depina, the foster child from Norwich, the need for more involvement from a social worker couldn't be any more urgent.
"The more we have them around, the better off we are," he said.