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Newly-appointed DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes spoke out Monday on the need educating families about safe sleeping practices for infants.
Vannessa Dorantes is the latest DCF commissioner charged with bringing the agency out from under decades of federal court supervision. Kathleen Megan / CT Mirror

The latest report from the federal monitor overseeing the state Department of Children and Families shows that the agency is not complying with five of 10 key measures that are part of a court supervised plan to improve services for children in its care.

Despite this, a lawyer for the plaintiffs expressed optimism that the 30-year-old case will be closed in the next few years because the agency has been making progress, particularly in its hiring and caseload goals, even though it did not reach target levels during the period covered by the report.

“I think there is a real opportunity for both Gov. Lamont and [DCF] Commissioner [Vannessa] Dorantes to really bring this home, if there’s a real heightened and constant focus on the known problem areas that remain,” said Ira Lustbader, counsel for the plaintiffs and litigation director for Children’s Rights in New York City.

Martha Stone, one of the original lawyers who filed the case known as “Juan F.” against DCF in 1989, said, the “good part is they have a plan to bring caseloads down, and they’ve stuck to the plan. I think that’s a real positive … and caseloads will be coming down to where they should be.”

The report found that DCF is still failing to provide enough help to children and families in a number of areas, including mental health and substance abuse services, and is not sufficiently engaging older children in their own case plans. Only 56.6% of clients received the mental health, behavioral and substance abuse services they needed during the first quarter of this year, the report said, while not a single youth 12 or older was involved in his or her own case planning process.

Stone said it’s important for case planning sessions to be scheduled after school, so that children do not have to miss school to attend.

The report also cites concerns about the quality of child abuse and neglect investigations and with case worker visits for children who remain in their family’s home under agency supervision.

Yet both Stone, who is the executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, and Lustbader expressed optimism about the new leadership at DCF.

The report covered a period from Oct. 1, 2018 through March 30, 2019, straddling the end of Gov. Malloy’s tenure, with Joette Katz as DCF commissioner, and the first quarter of Vannessa Dorantes’ term as commissioner under Gov. Ned Lamont. Stone said there is “more openness and collaboration under this Administration … I want to be positive about the collaboration and transparency.”

Lustbader said he thinks Dorantes “has the potential to finally successfully comply and exit this thing and end it during her term if she steers the agency down the path that’s been laid out.”

He said there are “huge reforms” that the prior administration put in place that have “held and made a really big difference.” Those, he said, include efforts to keep children at home safely and to use relative care, thereby reducing the use of institutions and facilities.

“Those are huge gains and improvements that the prior Administration has made that [Dorantes] is totally committed to carrying forward,” Lustbader said. “Those things put her in a strong place to move ahead and really tackle the five remaining areas during her tenure.”

The Juan F. class action lawsuit charged that the state was failing to provide necessary services for abused and neglected children and youth. A consent decree calling for reforms was signed in 1991 and the state’s child welfare agency has been under a federal court monitor’s supervision since 1992.

DCF Federal Court Monitor Raymond Mancuso CTMirror.org File Photo

Ray Mancuso is the current court-appointed monitor, and submitted the report earlier this month.

When asked to comment on the monitor’s report, a DCF spokesman referred the CT Mirror to Dorantes’ statement at the end of the document. In that statement, Dorantes says that, as a 26-year veteran of the department, she has essentially “grown up” with the decree.

“With that fact in mind, it is important to look critically at those specific areas where inconsistent practice has been evidenced while simultaneously scaling up best practice examples seen around the state….” Dorantes wrote. “The progress of the Juan F. decree relies squarely in practice improvement and consistency related to child outcomes. We continue to work with the monitor along with key stakeholders to ‘stay the course’ on areas achieved to demonstrate sustainability to our plaintiffs.”

She also said the agency continues to “experience success in recruiting and retaining a qualified workforce throughout the organization.”

The report says the department currently has 1,119 social workers, but will need an additional 56  social workers and 15 social work supervisors in order to get to the target caseload.

Lustbader said, however, that he has heard that the target number was reached this month and that he hopes the department can sustain the lower caseload numbers. In addition, Lustbader said, new investments have been made in community-based mental health, substance abuse and domestic violences services.

“Now that those are funded, if those are rigorously rolled out and implemented, we would expect to see real improvements,” Lustbader said, so that “gaps and wait lists” for key services in parts of the state can be addressed.

In her comment at the end of the report, Dorantes said that with the recent approval of the state’s biennium budget, “we will be implementing more community-based prevention services that are designed to meet the needs of families and decrease the need for DCF involvement. The success of the programs will allow us to maintain caseloads within the established standards.”

Kathleen Megan wrote for more than three decades for the Hartford Courant, covering education in recent years and winning many regional and national awards. She is now covering education and child welfare issues for the Mirror.

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  1. DCF will continue to refuse to make the actual changes necessary to end oversight for several reasons. Primarily, the agency leadership cannot and will not see how their core belief that DCF workers are objective in their decision making. When in fact they far too often make decisions based upon biased belief that they always are right. The 96 hour hold process must end and be replaced with a just cause hearing where both sides can present actual evidence. The agency has too much authority and the courts assume the agency’s position is based in truth without requiring any actual evidence. Exculpatory information is almost always hidden purposefully.

  2. It may be time to examine the role, effectiveness and cost of the court monitor. I also recall that Commissioner Katz said she would be out of the decree in one year. That was more than 8 years ago.

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