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Partial Federal Takeover Of DCF Urged

Lawyers Say Children Harmed By State's Failure To Meet Goals In Settlement

By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER | Courant Staff Writer

May 06, 2008

Nearly 6,000 Connecticut children live in the state child welfare system, and for many of them, life is unnecessarily bleak, lawyers representing them say.

More than 1,800 of them live in treatment centers, shelters and other settings that don't resemble a family. Nearly a quarter of them have dental needs that don't get met, while more than 35 percent don't get the mental health services they need.

And nearly 1,300 children are not on a path to being adopted or reunited with their families, but instead, advocates say, are likely to languish in the system until they turn 18.

On Monday, lawyers representing the thousands of children in DCF care in a class-action lawsuit called for a partial federal takeover of the state Department of Children and Families. Citing poor state leadership and unacceptable performance, advocates called the latest step dramatic but necessary.

"These are major areas where the failures are harming children every day in Connecticut's custody, and it's got to stop," said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children's Rights, a New York-based advocacy group, and a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "There's got to be a new sense of urgency and leadership."

In a notice delivered Monday to DCF officials, Lustbader and other plaintiff lawyers accused the state of failing to meet two key portions of a settlement to the class-action suit. DCF adequately plans for the needs of only 51 percent of children in its care, far below the 90 percent benchmark the settlement requires. Similarly, DCF provides adequate services to only 47.1 percent of children in its care, not the 80 percent the settlement calls for.

The numbers cited by the plaintiffs are from the quarterly reports of a court monitor.

The plaintiffs are seeking a limited federal receiver to address those two areas.

"There's just no excuse for this," Lustbader said. "It's not about money. Other systems have fixed these problems."

Gary Kleeblatt, DCF's communications director, said the problems should be viewed in the context of DCF's successes. The two areas highlighted in Monday's notice are part of a 22-part plan for DCF, and the department has met at least 16 of its goals for the past six quarters, he said. The department has also worked to serve children with behavioral needs at home, developed therapeutic group homes to get children out of institutions and seen an increase in the number of children adopted.

"We're not making excuses," he said. "We recognize that there's important room for improvement and that we need to make those improvements."

Failing Children

The state has failed to meet the needs of many of the nearly 1,300 children whose plans do not include a goal of adoption or reunification with their families, according to the notice. More than 100 of them are younger than 13.

Lustbader said that is a category most states reserve for the most rare, extreme cases. But in Connecticut, nearly a quarter of the children in DCF care fall into that category.

Shelley Geballe, president of Connecticut Voices for Children, said those children typically leave the system at age 18 unprepared for adulthood, often ending up homeless, with children of their own, or in prison.

"Unless kids are rooted somehow in a family, by the time they age out of care, they're really in trouble," she said. "They have no one or nothing to fall back on."

Kleeblatt acknowledged that DCF must do more for those children. He said many do not have adoption, reunification or guardianship goals because they are older teenagers who say they don't want to be adopted or have complex medical needs.

The notice Monday was rooted in a 1989 class-action lawsuit, named Juan F. after a boy in state custody, which led to a federal consent decree.

Since then, attorneys for the plaintiffs have repeatedly accused the state of failing to meet its obligations. In 2003, a federal monitor reported that children who had been abused and neglected in their homes were actually getting worse while in state care. Later that year, the agency was placed under the authority of both state and federal officials.

Geballe, an original plaintiff attorney in the Juan F. case, said the suit was initially filed to address two problems at DCF: a lack of resources and inadequate leadership.

The agency now has adequate resources but is still placing children in group homes and residential treatment programs even though foster homes are less costly and better for children, she said.

"With resources off the table, it comes down to leadership," she said.

Geballe called the request for a federal receiver dramatic, but added, "It seems to me we've had a generation of kids go into the system. It may be time."

Leadership Blamed

Connecticut Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein put the agency's shortcomings in stark terms.

"The two unmet outcomes are the fundamental measures that tell us whether children are better off due to DCF's involvement in their lives," she said.

Milstein also cited leadership, not resources, as the problem at DCF.

"What is so frustrating is that a significant number of the most critical leadership positions are currently held by those whose experiences involved responsibility for past policies and actions widely criticized as deficient or failed," she said.

DCF Commissioner Susan I. Hamilton, who has led the agency since last summer, is a veteran at DCF.

Her administration has included high positions for several other people who held high posts in previous DCF administrations, including onetime deputy commissioner Stacey H. Gerber, director of child welfare services under Hamilton, and Karl Kemper, the former head of child welfare who became Hamilton's chief of staff.

State Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said DCF has undergone many reorganizations but needs dynamic leadership, direction and a change.

"These are not new stories and not new problems or issues. They keep coming up again and again," he said. "I think it's increasingly becoming clear that we need a new direction at DCF."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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