With fiscal storm clouds looming over Connecticut, the state agency responsible for the care of 4,000 abused and neglected children on any given day probably will be shielded from further budget cuts.
U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill signed a court order Thursday, endorsed by the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, that restricts cuts to the Department of Children and Families’ budget. It also lays out what else the state must accomplish to end federal court oversight of its child welfare agency.
The order – which will go into effect unless the legislature votes to reject the “Revised Exit Plan” before mid-February – also would end court oversight in areas the state has proven to the court monitor are no longer systemic issues facing the agency. Those areas include searching for children’s relatives and placing siblings together as much as possible when they are removed from their homes.
“They get credit for what they are doing well, but this plan provides a brighter spotlight for what work remains,” Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights, which represents plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to federal supervision.
The agency has been under federal court supervision for more than two decades – since the 1989 “Juan F” class-action lawsuit documented the state’s failure to adequately care for abused and neglected children.
DCF, during Commissioner Joette Katz’s nearly five-year tenure, has launched several initiatives aimed at improving the care of vulnerable children. Those changes include moving children back to Connecticut from out-of-state facilities, reducing the number of children in large group homes, and using private agencies to provide needed services in low-risk cases while keeping children with their families.
But the agency also has come under fire over whether it has the safeguards and resources to keep more children in the community. In his reports the court monitor has regularly praised reforms the commissioner has made but has pointed out that the state still falls short in connecting children to mental health, housing and other services they require, either because of wait times or social workers with untenable case loads.
The new exit plan requires DCF to spend at least $794.8 million annually until court oversight ends and requires that an additional $6.4 million be spent on increased services for youth and families, such as mental health and substance abuse programs.
“It sets a clear floor for spending,” said Lustbader. “This is a really strong protection.”
Katz – whose budget for the current fiscal year is $58 million less than it was six years ago, a 7 percent cut – is pleased with the fiscal protection the order gives her vast agency.
“I do think we are at the point that we are at the bone. That is not a secret,” she said during an interview. “We have gone as low as we can go.”
But, she added, progress has clearly been made even with the cuts as costs increased.
“This exit plan is a recognition of the work and progress that the department has made,” she said.
“There is nothing here today to cheer about when so many children are still suffering, and when the current administration’s policies have worsened the situation for so many,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano. “Connecticut families cannot ignore that the six measures in which DCF continues to fail are critical elements that directly relate to child safety.”
Shielding nearly $800 million from cuts at DCF will leave the governor and legislators looking elsewhere in a $19.1 billion budget in what is expected to be another challenging state budget next year. The legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal office reports that the state’s finances already are on pace to run $1.3 billion in deficit.
Malloy and the leaders of the legislature’s Committee on Children praised the plan.
“This important milestone toward exit from federal oversight represents a significant moment for Connecticut, and most importantly is a real demonstration of the improvements made for our children and families,” Malloy said in a statement.
Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate, was measured in her response.
“We don’t have to keep measuring what’s working. We have to measure what hasn’t been working and work on that,” said Eagan. “It will be essential that even in these difficult fiscal times that the agency has the resources it needs to meet critical staffing and service needs.”