The House chairwoman of the legislature’s Committee on Children said she doubts federal supervision is helping the state agency responsible for caring for Connecticut’s 4,000 foster children on any given day improve.
At issue for Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, are key benchmarks the state Department of Children and Families must meet to end more than two decades of federal court oversight. The oversight requirement followed a successful class-action lawsuit, filed in 1989, that documented the state’s failure to adequately care for abused and neglected children.
“It seems that those two measures that you are left with are ones that it really becomes at the margin and almost impossible to get to where you need to go,” Urban told DCF Commissioner Joette Katz last week during a briefing at the state Capitol complex. “I hate to put it in those terms, but seriously, it’s at the margin. It just seems like we are getting into a ridiculous percentage in some cases.”
But child advocates have routinely said the benchmarks are necessary and achievable.
“There continue to be real problems,” Ira Lustbader, associate director of the national advocacy group Children’s Rights, which represents the plaintiffs in the successful “Juan F” lawsuit, said during an interview.
“There is a continuing shortage and delays of getting kids mental health treatment. There are kids stuck without critical health services,” Lustbader said. “There doesn’t appear to be enough programs to fit the need,” he said after the court monitor’s most recent quarterly report on DCF last month.
The benchmarks in the Exit Plan agreed upon by state agency officials and the plaintiffs, and accepted by a federal judge in 2004, require the case of every child in the department’s custody to be reviewed every quarter to ensure certain things are taking place. They include:
- When DCF removes children from their home, the agency must within six months search for other relatives for unification purposes for 85 percent of the children;
- No more than 2 percent of children removed from their homes shall be the victims of validated maltreatment by their new caretakers;
- At least 95 percent of siblings removed from their homes shall be placed together, barring therapeutic reasons for separate placements;
- No more than 15 percent of foster children shall live in three separate places in any 12-month period;
- Social workers shall visit at least 85 percent of the children living in group homes at least once a month and twice a month for those children who are allowed to stay at home with DCF supervision;
- Social workers should have no more than 15 cases at any time and investigators 17 cases;
- Eighty-five percent of foster children who age out of the system at 18 shall have at least a high school diploma or GED or be employed full-time.
The agency has met many of these standards throughout the years, but not for the consecutive six months required for all of them to end court oversight.
The demands of the agreement also require the monitor to conduct a more in-depth review of a random sample of cases to determine if the medical, dental, mental health and housing needs of eight of every 10 children are being met.
The state has never met that benchmark. Nor has it met the benchmark that calls for nine of every 10 cases reviewed to have adequate treatment plans in place.
Several of the 55 children whose cases the monitor reviewed last quarter, for example, needed counseling but faced delays in getting appointments. Another child needed eyeglasses but didn’t receive them.
Of the 55 cases Raymond Mancuso reviewed from July through September, 18 children did not have all of their “priority” needs met (33 percent of the cases reviewed). Broken down by specific needs (i.e. educational screenings, placement in a group home, getting a doctor’s appointment, etc.), the 55 children collectively had 215 unmet needs.
“One of the challenges, of course, with any of these consent decrees is how we define the measures,” said Fernando Muniz, deputy commissioner of DCF, told members of the Committee on Children last week. “That measurement strategy can really put a lot of barriers in place … In 80 percent of the cases we meet 80 percent of a family’s needs, but we don’t routinely meet 100 percent of a family’s needs. And so the way that it’s calculated makes it a very high bar for our staff to get to.”
The agency under Katz’s three-year tenure has launched several initiatives aimed at improving the care it provides these vulnerable children. Those changes include moving children home from out-of-state facilities and large group homes, and diverting low-risk cases to private providers to provide the needed services while keeping children with their families.
“Kudos to you, and I really wanted to get the opportunity to [hear] the story behind that curve behind those two measures, because sometimes we get hammered when we should not be getting hammered,” Urban told agency officials this week.
“It sounds like you are really focused on getting a lot of good work done,” echoed Rep. Whit Betts of Bristol, the ranking minority leader of the Committee on Children.
Lustbader, the plaintiffs’ attorney, compliments the department on the changes it has made, but he said he’s eager for the results to start showing up in the care children are provided, and verified by the court monitor.
When Katz took office in January 2011, she estimated it would take one year to improve the agency enough to get rid of federal supervision. This week her deputy commissioner said he estimates DCF still has a year to 18 months before meeting requirements of the decree.
Several other states and cities that have lost lawsuits over how their agency cares for its foster youth have ended federal oversight, reports Children’s Rights, who won the case in Connecticut. Those cases were in Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, New York City and Philadelphia.