Judge simplifies path for DCF to end court oversight

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last fall during a press conference to celebrate the successes of kinship care.

A federal judge Wednesday ordered Connecticut to commit to certain staffing and caseload levels for social workers at the Department of Children and Families as a step toward ending the court’s quarter-century oversight of the agency under a consent decree.

Unlike a plan for exiting court oversight that was rejected nearly a year ago by the General Assembly, it does not shield the agency from budget cuts.

U.S. District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill approved a revised exit plan  that requires the state to provide sufficient funding to reduce the caseloads of DCF social workers, without setting a bottom line for the agency’s total budget. A copy of the revised plan was not immediately available, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz and a plaintiff’s lawyer said it represented significant progress.

The new plan is the product of months of mediation conducted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Holly F. Fitzsimmons and replaces the one that’s been in place since 2004. It recognizes progress made by DCF since the state was sued in 1989 on behalf of “Juan F.” and other children under the agency’s care, and reduces the number of metrics by which the agency is judged from 22 to 14 “outcome goals,” then to 10 by June.

“DCF is making important strides that better support children and families involved in the state’s child welfare system, but the state must improve a good deal more to fully meet its obligation to these vulnerable kids,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights, which represents the plaintiffs. “This plan gives credit for sustaining good performance, puts a bright light on remaining problem areas, and protects resources needed to achieve full compliance and eventual exit.”

The version accepted Wednesday imposes no specific overall funding requirements and provides no mechanism of review by the legislature. The plan rejected in February would have committed Connecticut to maintaining DCF’s budget at about $800 million.

“I applaud the attorney general’s efforts to reach an agreement to implement appropriate changes to the Juan F. consent decree,” said Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven. “This news confirms that lawmakers were prudent in not rushing to accept Commissioner Katz’s original proposal, negotiated by her own counsel, earlier this year.”

The new terms were accepted by Malloy, the attorney general’s office and the plaintiffs. Without new funding, it could put pressure on Katz shift resources to keep caseloads at a certain level.

Malloy used the court’s acceptance of the new plan as an occasion to compliment his beleaguered commissioner, who faced a call for her dismissal Tuesday after the release of an investigative report by the Office of the Child Advocate about the death of a neglected autistic child in Hartford.

“The court’s decision to streamline the process of ending federal oversight is certainly a welcome one and is a testament to the improvements that DCF has made in its commitment to providing a family-oriented approach to child welfare under the leadership of Commissioner Katz,” Malloy said. “Even during these difficult budgetary times, we must do our best to remain as steadfast as ever in our mission to achieve the best outcomes for our most vulnerable children and families.”

An investigative report released Tuesday by the state’s child advocate criticized DCF, the Hartford public schools and juvenile court for failing to protect a 17-year-old from neglect. The teen died from starvation, dehydration and child abuse in February.

Fasano, who has called for Katz’s removal, said, “It is hardly a time to declare victory for the performance of the DCF.”

Malloy is the most recent of five Connecticut governors whose administrations have struggled to convince the federal court that DCF is adequately serving the interests of the 4,000 children under its supervision at any given time. Named by Malloy, Katz has become one of the nation’s longest-serving heads of a state child protection agency.

“Strengthening families and supporting staff in this difficult work takes sustained resources, and Gov. Malloy has always stood by children and families who are battling to overcome adversity,” Katz said in a prepared statement. “This new set of requirements is much more achievable and realistic in a relatively short period of time. I greatly appreciate this demonstration of confidence by Children’s Rights, by the court, and by the Malloy administration.”

Children’s Rights says the new priorities are improving the quality of case plans and ensuring that children’s medical, dental, mental health and other needs are met. The plan will reduce average social worker caseloads by 25 percent from current limits and requires Katz to create a strategic plan for implementation in consultation with the court-appointed monitor.

“It’s an exciting moment for Commissioner Katz and her agency,” said Steven Frederick of Wofsey, Rosen, Kweskin & Kuriansky, the advocacy group’s private counsel. “With a clear roadmap and focus in place, and the proper resources to support DCF’s efforts, there is an opportunity to make Connecticut’s child welfare system a model for the rest of the country.”

The General Assembly voted overwhelming on Feb. 1 to reject the previous effort to revise the exit plan, which also would have charted an easier path for DCF to end court oversight, while shielding its budget from cuts at the start of what was certain to be a difficult budget debate.

By votes of 110-36 in the House and 25-8 in the Senate, legislators exceeded the 60-percent super-majority required for rejection, a reflection of the strong resistance to placing more of the budget beyond legislative review.

Plaintiffs quickly asked Underhill to find the state in non-compliance of the existing agreement for failing too many youth in the foster care system, and Malloy was scathing in his criticism. The new exit plan carries the force of a court order and provides no mechanism for review by the legislature.

“Today the General Assembly let politics stand in the way of progress for our most vulnerable children and families,” Malloy said after the vote in February. “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.”

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