The General Assembly voted overwhelming Wednesday to reject a court settlement that would have charted an easier path for the state Department of Children and Families to end decades of federal court supervision and shield its $800 million budget from cuts.
The defeat keeps the agency under federal supervision and exposes the state to further court intervention over the level of its support for caring for neglected and endangered children. Plaintiffs quickly said they will likely ask a federal judge to find the state in non-compliance of the existing agreement for failing too many youth in the foster care system.
“Not only have defendants conceded their noncompliance with the operative Exit Plan, but they have also agreed with Plaintiffs as to an appropriate remedy to address the issues that continue to plague DCF,” Ira P. Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights, which represents the plaintiffs in the longstanding Juan F. case, wrote those involved in the case after the vote. “Rest assured, the plaintiffs remain committed to taking whatever steps are necessary to protect the Juan F. class and ensure the defendants make improvements for children.”
The vote was a setback for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and DCF Commissioner Joette Katz, the former state Supreme Court justice who took over the troubled agency in the early weeks of the Malloy administration in 2011 with a charge of resolving the case, now 26 years old.
“Today the General Assembly let politics stand in the way of progress for our most vulnerable children and families. This plan was supported by the plaintiffs, the federal court monitor, advocates, national experts, and the Attorney General’s Office, and yet it was not enough for the legislators who cast votes against the measure,” Malloy said. “They have now voted to keep Connecticut under federal oversight, even though a federal court has acknowledged the state’s significant improvements.”
The bipartisan vote against the settlement was 110-36 in the House and 25-8 in the Senate, easily clearing the 60-percent super-majority required for rejection. Breaking with the governor and their leaders, eight Democrats in the Senate and 38 in the House helped Republicans block the settlement. Every GOP legislator was opposed.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter of Hartford were among the 36 Democrats to support the settlement. In the Senate, President Pro Tem Martin Looney of New Haven and Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk were among the eight Democrats in support.
While the Malloy administration has been criticized for cutting the DCF budget midyear, legislators said the principle of setting the agency’s bottom line outside legislative review prompted opposition.
“I don’t believe that by locking their [budget] box we are going to get out of this,” said Rep. Catherine Abercrombie, D-Meriden. “I am not going to stand here and lock in an $800 million budget with no guarantee that we are going to get out from under this.”
The vote came even after the agency’s commissioner and the House co-chair of the Committee on Children warned that the agreement was the only avenue for the state to avoid being dragged back into court for failing to implement the current settlement.
They say the outcome will be much more expensive for the state if a judge agrees that the state is failing too many abused and neglected children.
“The court monitor made it clear that we were headed back to court,” said Rep. Diana Urban, D-Stonington, co-chair of the Committee on Children. “This is a golden opportunity. … We are talking about $50 to $100 million more.”
But legislators aren’t ready to lock in the agency’s budget, because many said they feel it would take away their prerogative to determine how DCF should spend its money.
“I believe not all is well with the agency.” said Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee. “We know that when we look at some of the horrific outcomes that have happened.”
“We appreciate the hard work of this agency and understand the desire to get out from under the court oversight, but this particular agreement does not settle the case and set a date for the end of court oversight,” said Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme. “Let us together craft a plan that will truly modify the existing outcome measures and help move DCF out of court oversight, which I think is the goal for everybody.”
Katz had said the settlement was a step toward that goal.
“I am deeply disappointed by today’s outcome, not only as commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, not only for the employees of the department who have worked tirelessly and made so much progress in improving our services—but for the Connecticut children and families we serve,” she said.
The vote Wednesday, she said, is an invitation to indefinite federal oversight and the expenditures of “millions of dollars for continued federal monitoring, litigation costs associated with noncompliance and further federal relief.”
Lustbader, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said now that the deal has been rejected by the legislature, potential remedies that he might seek include having the court monitor do a systemwide performance assessment of the agency and ask a judge to order the service gaps be filled immediately and require additional staff be hired so that the caseload standards in the existing agreement are finally met.