Is DCF Ready To Stand On Its Own?

by sshinkel

Eighteen years after it was placed under federal oversight as the result of a lawsuit brought by a New York-based advocacy group, the state Department of Children and Families is trying to return complete control of the agency to state officials. Critics, citing a shortage of foster homes for very young children, argue the agency isn’t ready yet.

“We literally have a generation of workers who have never seen the department operate without federal control,” says Josh Howroyd, a DCF spokesman. “I came here three weeks after the consent decree was signed in January 1991.”

The so-called Juan F. Consent Decree, named after one of the children represented by Children’s Rights in the action it filed in 1989, required DCF to report to a federal monitor concerning its progress on more than 100 management and policy issues identified in the lawsuit, covering everything from foster care to adoption, mental health care and investigations.

“Juan F. was the original lawsuit that went after DCF for not providing adequate care and protection for children in its custody,” says Jeanne Milstein of the state Office of the Child Advocate.

In April, DCF filed a motion to vacate the consent decree, taking Milstein and others by surprise with its claim that “sweeping and widespread” changes in the department meant federal oversight was no longer needed.

“These structural and organizational changes and improvements, that have been implemented and sustained by the Department of Children and Families and the State, along with increased oversight and funding by the federal government, eradicate the possibility of reversion to the conditions that existed at the time the complaint was filed in 1989,” argues DCF in its motion.

Now Milstein and the Center for Children’s Advocacy, a nonprofit based in Hartford, have struck back, filing briefs on Aug. 5 arguing for continued court oversight of DCF.

“The problems persist at DCF,” says Milstein. “They continue to ineffectively, inadequately improve conditions. Their motion does not match reality. Federal oversight shouldn’t end when they feel they’ve done enough, but when they can prove it.”

In the 74-page motion it filed in April, DCF argues it has met nearly all of the “outcome measures” required by Juan F., and that it has been in compliance for “significant lengths of time.”

For example, Outcome Measure 21 “requires DCF to submit a written discharge plan for all children who are mentally ill or mentally retarded and require adult services.” DCF points out the federal court monitor found that in 12 of the last 14 quarters it had complied with this outcome measure 95 percent of the time, according to the motion.

“There can be no genuine dispute that [DCF has] complied in full with the vast majority of the Outcome Measures in the Exit Plan — setting aside Outcome Measures 3 and 15, which are discussed in detail below — and that [DCF has] been in compliance with these measures for significant lengths of time,” argues DCF in its motion.

Outcome Measures 3 and 15 require the agency to develop treatment plans for children in its care within 60 days of opening a case or “a child’s placement out-of-home,” whichever comes first; and to meet the medical, dental, mental health and “other service needs” of at least 80 percent of the children and families in its care, as specified in those treatment plans.

In its motion DCF argues that despite the fact the federal court monitor found last year it was only in compliance with 3 and 15 about 50 percent of the time that shouldn’t stop the court from lifting the consent decree.

“These percentages do not, however, accurately depict the success of the Department in meeting the goals and objectives of Outcome Measures 3 and 15, and of providing services to and meeting the needs of Connecticut’s children,” argues DCF. “This single measurement of complex data is misleading, because it confines understanding of performance and masks important progress the Department has experienced in meeting the goals and objectives of Outcome Measures 3 and 15.”

DCF suggests it may not be in compliance with 3 and 15 according to the methodology outlined by the consent decree, but “the Department is fully meeting the goals of both of these Measures.”

In their briefs, Milstein and the Center for Children’s Advocacy — joined by Connecticut Voices for Children, Connecticut Legal Services, Inc. and New Haven Legal Assistance Association, Inc. — argue DCF has made progress, but not enough to justify lifting the consent decree.

“Certainly there have been improvements in the 20 years the consent decree has been in place,” says Sarah Eagan, director of the child abuse project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy. “But when you’re dealing with the kids my office represents, it’s not just about progress. It’s about are you meeting all the needs of the kids dependent on you?”

Eagan says it’s clear “there are way too many kids still not getting their basic needs met.” One example, she says, are the very young children who are still being placed in group homes because of a chronic shortage of foster homes. Clinical studies have shown young children do not do well in group homes, where their caregivers change daily with changing work shifts, says Eagan.

“No matter how many rainbows are on the wall or how nice the staff is, it’s developmentally detrimental,” she says.

Babies and very young children are “hardwired” to bond with an individual caregiver, says Eagan, who serves as the “gateway to all their development in their early years.” In 2009, she says, DCF placed more than 237 very young children in group homes.

“DCF is already a closed system,” says Eagan. “The courts are closed, and there’s less and less media coverage in this era. These kids need that [federal] oversight.”

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