Big vote looms over ‘the way out’ of court oversight for DCF

An agreement that shields the state’s child welfare system from budget cuts is the only feasible way the Department of Children and Families can escape federal court oversight after 25 years, the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy believes.

CTMirror file photo

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz, center, talks with agency staff and foster youth.

And the administration hopes legislators focus on that critical point when they convene today to consider the agreement, which would overhaul how the agency is graded by its overseers.

“This is the way out,” Fernando Muñiz, deputy commissioner of the agency, said during an interview, pointing to the new plan that has been endorsed by the plaintiffs in the long-standing Juan F. case. “This is our best shot.”

DCF has been overseen by a federal court for more than 25 years because of the Juan F. lawsuit, which documented shortcomings in care for abused and neglected children.

Legislators, however, aren’t ready to buy into the new agreement – at least not yet.

Last week, the Appropriations Committee voted 31 to 7 to recommend the General Assembly reject the deal. It would require shielding DCF’s $800 million budget from cuts, and legislators’ expressed concern about what doing that would mean for other agencies as the state grapples with a $1.4 billion deficit for the upcoming fiscal year.

The legislature’s non-partisan fiscal experts report that about $10 billion of the state’s current $18 billion budget is already fixed and is largely immune to cuts.

A Sunday deadline looms for the legislature to reject the plan or let it go into effect.

A new report card

Under the current setup, DCF is overseen by a court-appointed monitor who checks in on 54 randomly selected children in the state’s foster care system each quarter to see if they have received all the care they need, including medical, dental, mental health and educational services. The office also reviews whether the children’s living arrangements are appropriate and whether DCF staff is adequately working to reunite them with their families, when feasible.

To exit court supervision under the current agreement, the state must meet every need of at least 44 of the 54 children reviewed for six consecutive months.

“That is far less than perfection,” said Ira Lustbader, director of litigation for Children’s Rights, whose organization represents the plaintiffs.

But DCF officials believe they will never be able to reach that 80-percent benchmark. The closest the state has ever been to the 44-child threshold was in spring 2013, when 40 children had every need met.

Fernando Muñiz, deputy commissioner of DCF

On the agency’s most recent report card, only 34 of the 54 children reviewed had all of their needs met.

In several cases, however, the state fell short in just one of the 11 graded areas.

“You wouldn’t say that the state is failing those children; you would say there is one area that we need to address,” said Muñiz. “The current method of grading DCF downplays our performance.”

There were several cases, however, where numerous needs of an abused child were not being met.

Under the new grading system in the agreement, DCF would be measured on how often the agency provides sufficient care in each of the 11 areas. For example, the state would have to provide necessary medical care in 85 percent of the cases reviewed. The same threshold would apply for dental, mental health, education, and reunification services.

This setup would allow the agency to focus its energy – and funding – on where it is falling short, which historically has been in providing families with the necessary counseling or other services needed so their children can return to a safe home. The agency also has struggled with providing sufficient mental health or substance abuse programing.

Attorneys who represent the abused children in the system say this new setup allows the state to better focus on its deficiencies.

“It locks in resources to fix real problems right now. I think this new agreement absolutely moves them much faster to exit and allows them to focus on the key areas that are still problems for DCF,” said Lustbader. “This is an opportunity to move the agency forward. Streamlined obligations and resource protections: here is the roadmap to improve. … The proposed plan provides for a much more rapid exit.”

Aside from the 11 benchmarks for specific needs, the agreement continues other requirements, including that the vast majority of children in foster care live with their siblings unless it is medically necessary that they be apart and that social workers see children in the system at least once every three months – benchmarks the agency has struggled for years to meet.

A locked-in budget

The proposed agreement doesn’t lock the legislature into spending more than was appropriated in any recently adopted state budget with the exception of the current year’s, but it does require spending more than the agency has actually received.

The problem has been that as state government has faced mid-year deficits, or as the legislature left it up to the governor to find cuts, the DCF budget was regularly targeted for savings.

Convinced the agency merited some protection from funding cuts, state budgets adopted over the last decade never dipped below $800 million, with the exception of the current fiscal year, when the legislature appropriated $795 million. Mid-year adjustments, however, have reduced the budgets the legislature adopted by as much as $80 million.

Some legislators, however, remember being told that the agency could handle some of the mid-year cuts as the agency placed fewer children in costly group homes and out-of-state facilities and more with family members. That shift, they were told, would save $80 million, of which $55 million would need to be reinvested in the system and $25 million could be used to help close state budget shortfalls.

The federal court monitor has for years chronicled the agency’s deficiencies and largely ascribed them to funding and staffing issues.

“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,” monitor Raymond Mancuso warned lawmakers in late 2013. His most recent report outlined the same problem.

“We have done more with less,” Katz told the Appropriations Committee before they rejected the deal. “We are at the point that we cannot do any more with less.”

But Republican legislators at last week’s hearing questioned whether DCF’s shortfalls could be entirely blamed on budget challenges.

In the last 13 months, the state’s Office of the Child Advocate, an independent watchdog, has released two reports criticizing DCF for what it termed systemic issues with the vast agency’s oversight of children removed from their families. (Read more here and here.)

“Given the series of heartbreaking abuse and neglect cases that can be directly related to the gross system failures identified at DCF, I simply have no confidence in the department to achieve compliance even with the lower standards,” Senate Republican President Pro Tem Len Fasano, of North Haven, testified last week.

Katz: Rejection means going back to court

Katz said she believed the deal would allow DCF to exit court supervision within one year, with one additional year of self-monitoring and reporting.

If the legislature rejects it, she predicted, the state will be dragged back to court and found to be violating the existing agreement. Renegotiating a different plan is not under consideration.

“I can say with complete confidence that the plaintiffs would have no interest in doing that,” she told the committee. “I can state that we will be back in court for lack of compliance.”

Katz said that’s an even bigger gamble for the state to take, given that a judge might rule in ways that make even more than $800 million necessary to right-size the troubled agency.

Lustbader wouldn’t say what his team of attorneys plans to do if the deal is rejected, except to say, “We will do whatever is necessary to protect the well-being of these children. There is really not much question or debate about whether there are resource shortages that are hurting these kids.”

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