A federal judge formally released the Department of Children and Families from three decades of court oversight Thursday, concluding that Connecticut once again can be entrusted with the care of its most vulnerable children.
“We are very excited to be able to say that today, in 2022, we are a very different agency than we were in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” said Vannessa Dorantes, the eighth and final DCF commissioner to answer to federal overseers.
In the view of plaintiff’s counsel, DCF has been transformed from a model of dysfunction to an exemplar of a child-protection agency focused on keeping children with relatives and out of institutions to the greatest degree possible.
“The kind of big structural policy things that the department has achieved, I think it really put it at the leading edge nationally,” said Ira Lustbader of Children’s Rights, a national advocacy group that joined the litigation after it was initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU-CT).
The federal civil rights lawsuit was filed in 1989 on behalf of “Juan F.,” an anonymous 10-year-old boy representative of a class of children whose needs were unmet by an agency run with poor resources, guided by outdated policies.
The litigation reflected a desire to remake child protection in Connecticut to address an evolution towards working to support troubled families instead of stripping them of their children.
“We believe here in Connecticut that children belong safely at home. And when safety cannot happen at home, they are with relatives or someone that they know,” Dorantes said.
The concept is simple, one built on research indicating that children are better off with family. But the reality of providing necessary supports and having options when a child’s safety cannot be assured at home is complex.
Dorantes began her career as a consequence of Juan F.
She was hired in December 1992, when the plaintiffs and state agreed to a consent decree that, among other things, required the agency to hire scores of social workers. Dorantes was 22.
“I think about my entire career, spanning from one end of it to the other,” Dorantes said. “It’s humbling.”
When she began, a social worker carried 56 cases. Today, she said, the number is a more manageable 17. There were 300 children being cared for in out-of-state placements. Today, the number is five.
Forty-two percent of the children under DCF supervision are being cared for by a relative, a rarity 30 years ago. And, Dorantes said, the agency is more sensitive to its relationship with minority communities.
“We recognize that children of color represent a disproportionate number of kids in care, and so we have to look at how we serve those families and engage with those communities very differently than just the general blanket approach,” said Dorantes, the agency’s first Black commissioner.
The end of the Juan F. consent decree, as ordered by U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill, comes soon after acceptances of a settlement in the Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation case — also filed more than 30 years ago.
Gov. Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong said both cases appropriately returned policy making from the courts to the executive agencies.
“Litigation is no way to set policy,” Tong said.
The Sheff settlement requires certain spending on education and will be enforced by an injunction, while there will be no further court supervision in Juan F. with the acceptance of the final exit plan Thursday.
Martha Stone, a lawyer who is lead plaintiff’s counsel in Sheff and was part of the legal team in Juan F., expressed discomfort at the difference.
“The way they structured this, it’s just this abrupt termination with no accountability to the plaintiffs to make sure that there’s no retrenchment,” said Stone, executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy.
While there have been “tremendous improvements” over the past few years at DCF, the department still needs to work on mental health services for children and address the high rate of employee turnover with its contracted service providers, Stone said.
“Maybe you don’t need a full-time monitoring office, maybe you don’t need a monitoring structure, the way they had it up to this point, but you do need some kind of public accountability,” Stone said.
Steve Fredericks, the lead co-counsel in Juan F., said the exit from the court decree came after a series of deliberate steps.
“It seems to me hard to characterize the end of a 32-year case as abrupt,” Fredericks said. “A lot of the structural change today started a decade ago, and there have been dramatic improvements each year since.”
Sarah Eagan, who has closely watched and sometimes criticized child protection as the state’s child advocate since 2013, said the end of the consent decree was a moment for those in the “life-and-death critical incident business” to take measure of DCF’s progress.
“A lot of things are different and better,” she said. “There’s no question about it — it’s a huge generational milestone.”
Eagan said no one is suggesting that the end of the consent decree is the end of the need to make improvements.
“We’re not done,” Eagan said. “It’s now, what’s next?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the federal litigation against the state was brought by Children’s Rights. The story has been corrected to reflect that it was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and joined by Children’s Rights.