The legislature’s budget-writing committee voted overwhelmingly Monday to recommend rejecting a plan being pushed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that would lock the legislature indefinitely into a plan to spend at least $800 million yearly on the state’s child protection and foster care system.
The full state House of Representatives intends to vote next Wednesday on the plan, which would set the budget for the state Department of Children and Families (DCF).
“Right now, we are planning on voting on this,” said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, the House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. “It’s not only Democrats or Republicans, a lot of people have concerns.”
A spokesman for Senate Democrats said they also plan to convene that chamber Wednesday “with the intention of voting on the agreement.”
Walker commented after her committee spent the morning questioning DCF Commissioner Joette Katz, who said the administration’s plan would improve the care provided to thousands of children so dramatically that it probably would end federal court oversight of her agency in one year.
“It is my best judgment that if you reject this, you will be back in court,” Katz warned the committee, adding, “Frankly, I am grateful” for the budget and staffing-level protections that the agreement would bring DCF.
DCF has been overseen by a federal court for more than 25 years because of a lawsuit that documented shortcomings in care for abused and neglected children.
Members of the Appropriations Committee were not convinced the proposed agreement is appropriate, however. Concerns ranged from losing legislative ability to determine how DCF spends its budget to the impact that shielding one agency’s budget would have on others, including those that provide help for adults with mental health needs.
The state is facing a $1.4 billion deficit in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Malloy has said he wants to close the deficit without tax increases.
“I don’t think people realize how much damage was done” to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Department of Social Services, said Rep. Pat Dillon “People don’t have access to medications.”
“I am not in favor at this point of locking in your budget,” Rep. Catherine Abercrombie, the House chairwoman of the legislature’s Human Services Committee, told the commissioner. “We would be doing a disservice to all the other agencies that come before us.”
Of the 12 state senators on the committee, ten voted against the plan and two in favor of it. Democrats who crossed party lines to vote against their Democratic governor’s plan included senators Mae Flexer, Joan Hartley, Gayle Slossberg and Gary Winfield.
Among the House members on the committee, 32 voted against the plan and five in favor. Significantly more Democrats voted against the measure than in favor.
The General Assembly has until Feb. 6 to reject the plan or it will go into effect. Monday’s committee vote against the plan indicates it will have a difficult time in the full assembly.
Asked if the administration intends to withdraw the plan and renegotiate it with those involved in the lawsuit or resubmit later so it can be considered along with the entire budget, a Malloy spokesman was pointed.
“No. Absolutely not,” she said.
Katz said during an interview after the vote that the General Assembly is setting itself up to be found in violation of the current court order that sets standards for the agency, including for mental health and other services for abused youth.
“I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding that if this is rejected, that nothing is going to happen, and things will be fine, and we will get out of oversight,” Katz said. “We are in noncompliance.”
Children’s Rights, the organization that represents the plaintiffs in the case, said it was concerned by the committee’s action.
“The resources provided for in this new exit plan are critical to protect and support kids in the child welfare system, and we view the governor and DCF commissioner’s agreement on the plan as a sign of the state’s commitment to improve their quality of life,” said Steven Frederick, partner at the Stamford law firm of Wofsey Rosen Kweskin & Kuriansky, and co-counsel on the Juan F. case. “We are concerned that rejection of the new exit plan by the legislature will adversely affect the children in DCF’s care.”
The plan would overhaul what DCF is required to do before it can exit court supervision. It would require reducing caseloads for social workers, increasing spending by $6.4 million for mental health and substance-abuse programs, and shielding DCF from budget cuts as long as the agency is under court oversight.
In return, the agreement would end court oversight of areas the state has proven are no longer systemic problems. Those areas include searching for children’s relatives and placing siblings together as much as possible when they are removed from their home.
While DCF’s budget has been cut in recent years, legislators have somewhat shielded the agency from deep cuts imposed on other agencies. During Malloy’s first year in office in 2011, DCF’s spent $808.3 million, according to the state comptroller’s annual report. This fiscal year, the agency is on pace to receive $794.2 million, a 1.7 percent reduction.
The legislature has, however, allocated much more than the agency ended up spending each year. That’s because the governor’s budget office froze hiring or cut funding mid-year as the state budget faced red ink.
Much of the angst around this agreement stems from the fact that the legislature shielded DCF from cuts with the hope of ending court oversight in the near future. But six years into Katz’ and Malloy’s tenures, the most recent quarterly review of the agency found that children’s needs were not being met in one-third of the cases reviewed.
Before voting against the plan, Slossberg said she has no problem shielding the agency’s budget from cuts, but doesn’t want to have it locked in until the state sheds oversight.
“If you get the money that you are asking for now, you are telling us that you can achieve” the benchmarks the court has currently set. “I don’t understand why we don’t just go back into court and say we have achieved them and now we are done and ask to be released from federal court oversight as opposed to having a plan that binds this legislature in perpetuity for who knows how long,” she said. “To me that seems like a much simpler outcome.”
But for the Malloy administration, this agreement is the logical approach.
“Federal oversight of the Department of Children and Families has been a blight on Connecticut for over two decades,” said Donnelly. “While today’s vote is disappointing, we remain hopeful that this settlement will be approved and that Connecticut can continue making progress for its families and children.”