There is no higher priority than the well-being of our children. Our future and theirs depend on decisions we make today. That’s why it is essential that Connecticut’s legislative leaders support a key budget item to protect the most vulnerable of our children by affirming the governor’s recommendation to protect the budget of the Department of Children and Families.

At Boys & Girls Village, a nonprofit agency that for 75 years has provided behavioral health, family permanency planning and educational services to at-risk youth, we see first-hand how DCF funding often is the only hope for too many youth who need access to these crucial services.

No one doubts that the state’s current fiscal reality will require the legislature to make difficult budget decisions. However, DCF funding must not be a candidate for financial sacrifice. Too many youth and too much recent accomplishment are at stake.

Under the current leadership of Commissioner Joette Katz, DCF has made enormous strides in reversing very problematic trends in how child welfare and behavioral health were previously managed in Connecticut. After years of placing children in out-of-state facilities at enormous cost and with minimal positive results, DCF has taken the steps necessary to successfully bring the overwhelming majority of these children home.

This change and other programs which recognize that sustainable progress is often best achieved when individual youth and their families work together,  have given us our best chance in decades to break cycles of abuse, overuse of the criminal justice system, failed education, and families torn apart with no way out. We cannot abandon these families at this critical juncture, especially when so many other resources will be going away.

Mistakes and missteps by previous DCF administrations forced the federal government to step in and place the department under a consent decree. The goal of the decree was to implement and oversee necessary changes, which previous Department administrations had struggled to achieve. Those changes are now happening and we are on the threshold of eliminating the need for further federal court supervision. With so many significant gains in hand, we will be able to look forward, focusing on the opportunities for further progress, rather than dwelling on the mistakes of the past.

If DCF funding is now cut, our soon-to-be-achieved goal of removing federal oversight, and its accompanying funding requirements and operational limitations, will be lost.

Much has been learned about how to approach and achieve the best outcome for at-risk youth since the consent decree was put into place. Exiting the federal oversight plan is more than a sign of progress. Eliminating the costs and restrictions of federal oversight will also enable DCF and nonprofit service providers like Boys & Girls Village to increase our recent successes, allowing even more children to receive critical support services in their homes and at a more cost-effective price than can be provided by higher-priced institutional care.

Funding for child welfare and mental health is a complex web. There are few funding streams for children, and monies from DCF are essential to almost all child welfare and behavioral health programs provided by private nonprofit human services organizations. If the DCF budget is cut, we will have the choice of deciding what funds are needed to exit the decree and what funds are needed to ensure the health and well-being of our most vulnerable children.

If funding is not there to ensure the completion of the consent decree exit strategy — now well underway at DCF — the court is likely to order more funding, not less.  It is far more fiscally prudent to ensure DCF budget funding is there to meet the exit requirements and to ensure that DCF human service organizations are not abandoned, leaving the most vulnerable of our citizens to pay the real price.

Dr. Steven M. Kant is the President and CEO of Boys & Girls Village.

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