The state agency responsible for caring for thousands of abused and neglected children would finally be on the right path to ending 20 years of federal court oversight if not for its “inadequate” staffing levels, the court monitor overseeing the agency reports. Because there are too few social workers and every case they receive now is complex, “the system is stressed,” the monitor reports.

The Department of Children and Families has 398 fewer caseload-carrying social workers today than in January 2011 –- a 29 percent reduction. Agencywide, the department has 326 fewer staff members (which includes social workers and other positions) since fiscal 2011 — a 9 percent drop.

“Social workers reluctantly note on a fairly regular basis that they are forced to make difficult decisions on how to allocate their case management efforts. They describe their inability to effectively meet all of the daily demands to assist their clients,” Raymond Mancuso, the federal court monitor, reported last week.

Gaps in serving the needs of the 4,000 children in DCF care on any given day are a decades-long problem. 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.

After years of state reforms to improve DCF, staffing remains one of the final challenges.

At this point, DCF is removing fewer children from their families, moving children home from out-of-state facilities and large group homes and diverting low-risk cases to private providers to provide necessary services.

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Joette Katz at her confirmation

“Even with these improvements the system is stressed and continued improvement is jeopardized given workflow demand and increased expectations,” Mancuso reports.

The agency has started to get better reviews from the monitor in terms of the number of children receiving the education, medical and psychological care they need.

Of the 54 cases reviewed by the court monitor between January and March, there were 197 instances of children not being properly care for. Between April and June, he found 137 instances of children not being properly cared for in the 54 cases reviewed — the lowest number of children not being cared for since court oversight began.

These deficiencies range from a foster child not getting needed eyeglasses to children being put on wait lists for doctor’s appointments or facing delays in getting special education services.

In total, three-quarters of the children’s cases reviewed were getting all of their needs met.

Fewer cases = fewer social workers

The agency’s recent reforms have led to fewer investigations taking place and fewer children ending up in state custody.

The reduced caseload –- a 19 percent drop since January 2011 — has been the reason pointed to by officials that fewer social workers are needed. The state budget has, accordingly, cut DCF’s funding. (By $68.4 million since fiscal 2010, a 7.6 percent reduction to the agency’s total budget.)

“The budget for 2014 removed funding for 30 vacant social work positions due to the dropping in caseload,” Gian-Carl Casa, of the Office of Policy and Management, wrote in a statement.

But there’s a rub: 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.

“Staffing levels are inadequate given the complexity of cases that now make up the pool of investigations and ongoing service cases that social workers have on their caseloads,” Mancuso reports.

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.

While there are caseload standards required by the court, the complexity of a case is not taken into account. Cases are currently weighted by the age of the child and whether the child is living in his or her home while being monitored or placed in state custody.

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz is well aware of the situation.

“It’s definitely more intense for them. There’s no fluff,” Katz said during an interview with the Mirror this past spring shortly after the problem was first raised by the court monitor. “What they are left with are kids coming into care that are more complex, and we are also demanding more of our social workers because of our changes in practice.”

The agency has begun changes that require social workers to arrange visits to homes (showing up unannounced only if there are safety concerns) and to create team meetings with a child’s family to strategize how to improve the child’s situation, all of which are more time consuming.

Lorraine Thomas — who supervises five social workers who help children in Middletown, Norwich and Willimantic –- says there’s no question these changes have increased her workload.

She’s all right with that.

Raymond Mancuso
Court monitor Raymond Mancuso

“Partnership is a process,” Thomas said, when asking about having to call a home before just showing up. “I need to respect these families and call and be flexible to talk. The family needs to know we are working for them and not against them.”

About having to arrange meetings with the family to plan for the foster child’s life, she says, “In the past we would meet without the families and we would decide what was best for them… It may be more work -– but it’s good work.”

But, with one-quarter of foster children’s needs not being met in the cases reviewed by the court monitor, Mancuso says he worries these workers aren’t able to get everything done children need.

His solution is to increase staffing.

The union representing these social workers wants the same thing.

“There’s just not enough time in the day to get the work done,” said AFSCME Local 2663 President Paul Lavallee.

So why hasn’t the agency hired more social workers?

“It comes down to dollars and cents,” said Lavallee, whose union represents 2,500  human and social services employees.

“There’s not a lot, frankly, that we can do. Our funding is our funding,” Katz told The Mirror in March.

DCF officials have not requested increased staffing from the governor’s office for years.

“No social worker or social worker supervisor position requested by DCF has been denied by [the governor’s budget office] for fill/refill,” Casa, the spokesman for OPM, wrote in a statement.

Asked if the court monitor’s findings have persuaded the agency to seek additional social workers, DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said, “It’s an issue we are willing to examine and look at.”

Federal Court Monitor Report Card for DCF, Second quarter of 2013

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Complaint against DCF for the care it provides abused and neglected children (Continue reading article here.)

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Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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