Judge: Legislature’s rejection of DCF deal may lead court to act

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CTMirror.org

Joette Katz and her deputy, Fernando Muniz, testify on the DCF agreement the legislature rejected. Both were in court Friday.

Bridgeport — After the state legislature rejected a settlement last week that would have brought the Department of Children and Families’ decades-long court oversight closer to an end, the federal judge presiding over the case said he may take matters into his own hands in the coming weeks.

U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill said Friday he fears the court is “heading toward a series of orders” to mandate “100 percent compliance” as a result of the legislature’s decision.

“The court doesn’t have a magic wand,” but it does have the ability to “order outcomes,” Underhill said.

Underhill is presiding over the longstanding Juan F. case, which challenges whether the state is doing enough to care for neglected and endangered children. It has remained unresolved for 26 years.

One of those outcomes might be an increase in DCF’s staff, which Underhill discussed at length during Friday’s hearing.

Underhill said he believes providing additional funding to DCF would result in greater compliance, because it would allow the department to hire more staff. More staff, he said, means smaller caseloads for employees.

“I think too often the issue comes down to dollars,” Underhill said. “This isn’t throwing money at a problem.”

Underhill said the legislature’s decision not to accept the settlement and guarantee DCF’s funding – and thus its staffing levels – would be like the Patriots opting to put only seven men on the field while trailing in the fourth quarter of this year’s Super Bowl.

Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn, who represented the state, said later Friday that the state remains committed to meeting the Juan F. consent decree standards.

“In fact, the governor’s budget proposes funding above the levels called for by the rejected settlement, and DCF has stated that those resources would permit reduced caseloads in line with the settlement terms, making further progress possible in meeting the remaining outcome measures,” Zinn Rowthorn said. “In light of those facts, we welcome further discussions among the parties, but made clear that we will resist additional court-ordered funding mandates or fiscal ‘lock boxing,’ as doing so in the face of both recognized progress and demonstrated fiscal commitment would be unwarranted.”

Mandating specific outcomes would come instead of explicitly requiring the legislature to allocate additional funding, which Underhill said would be unusual for the court to order.

Underhill could issue orders mandating compliance as soon as March, when the court is set to reconvene.

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. with comments from Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn.

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