Eighteen months after new management took over the troubled Department of Children and Families, a report issued Thursday by a federal monitor says the agency still has a long ways to go before he’s convinced that abused and neglected children are in good hands with the state.
When DCF removes children from their homes, it is required to find the majority of them permanent housing in a timely fashion — either through adoption or by returning them to their homes.
But according to monitor Raymond Mancuso’s newest analysis, the rate of timely adoptions is at its lowest since 2004 – a “significant departure” from previous reports. Further, the rate of eligible children being reunited with their families in a timely manner is the lowest since mid-2009.
Appointed by a federal judge, Mancuso monitors the agency following a successful class-actionlawsuit charging the state with failing too many vulnerable children. In his new report, Mancuso says DCF is facing “timeliness issues” when placing children into appropriate care and has made little progress towards meeting the required benchmarks.
A DCF spokesman said that since the report, the adoption rate has improved to a level that would put the department in compliance with its court-stipulated requirement.
Mancuso said the state’s failure to reunify families within the one-year requirement could be a reflection of the changing needs of children in care. Changes in who can be reimbursed for adopting children may also be at play, he said.
Overall, Mancuso reported, the agency met 15 of 22 established performance benchmarks between January and March. That’s three fewer than in the previous quarter when the agency met 18. The department must meet all 22 outcome measures to rid itself of federal court oversight.
The monitor reviewed how the department handled 53 children removed from their homes, and whether the treatment plans were sufficient and the children’s needs were met. The monitor found a total of 254 unmet needs among this group. Problems listed included delays in referrals for treatment, services not being readily available or the children refusing treatment.
“While DCF continues to make real improvements for kids in child welfare, major problems remain,” Ira Lustbader of Children’s Rights and an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the longstanding lawsuit that led to federal court oversight of DCF.
Commissioner Joete Katz isn’t jolted by the report. It documents significant changes she has implemented at the enormous agency since taking over in January, 2010. The department has an annual budget of nearly $1 billion and some 4,300 children in its custody on any given day.
“All of these changes represent important improvements for our work with children and families. Still, there is much more that remains to be done,” she wrote in her response to the monitor’s findings.
Those changes that have begun include placing more at-risk children with relatives instead of strangers. With only one in eight foster children placed with relatives, the state had one of the worst rates in the U.S. The state now has one in four children placed with relatives — the national average.
She has also ended the practice of having DCF workers show up unannounced at homes to conduct routine investigations. The number of children placed out-of-state and young children living in homes with shift-workers has also been significantly reduced during her tenure. It is a change child advocates have been pushing DCF to make for years.
But the court monitor isn’t sure these reforms have created better situations for children.
He said there remains “the need to review and monitor the outcomes for the diverted children.”
Martha Stone, one of the lawyers behind the lawsuit and the leader of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, said she has mixed feelings about the agengy.
“There has been tremendous progress in some areas but disappointing indicators in others,” she said, pointing to the number of kids whose needs are still not being met. “It’s frustrating… We just need to see some results for the kids.”
Katz said one reform she launched in March is expected to dramatically improve the state’s child welfare system. That change includes giving social workers significant flexibility, and a less adversarial approach, on how they handle cases. This method is known as a Differential Response System, and numerous commissioners before Katz unsuccessfully attempted to implement this national strategy.
“We are at the crossroads in our transformation,” Katz wrote. “The impact … promises to transform our relationships with families and children. That will be the greatest transformation of all because solid evidence indicates this relationship has tremendous bearing on the outcomes of our interventions.”