State agency deficient in eight areas, up from five in last quarter
By JOSH KOVNER
December 22, 2010
The state Department of Children and Families continues to lag in recruiting and retaining foster families — a problem that affects the entire child-protection system and results in children being sent to out-of-state facilities or languishing in institutions, according to the latest federal oversight report.
The quarterly report released Wednesday by court monitor Raymond Mancuso said DCF was deficient in eight key areas related to the care of vulnerable children, including its foster care program.
The report covered July through September. In the previous quarter, DCF was deficient in five key areas.
Mancuso said DCF created 48 new foster homes since 2008, but lost nearly 300 in the last four months alone. He noted that out-of-state-placements of children — an expensive proposition that can traumatize the children — had increased during this last review period.
"The report's disturbing," said Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children's Advocacy in Hartford. She was one of the original lead lawyers in the Juan F. child-neglect lawsuit that triggered federal oversight of DCF.
On Sept. 22, a federal judge denied a DCF request to end the oversight, ruling that it should continue indefinitely.
"Foster care is the linchpin of the system," Stone said. "When you can't recruit and retain foster families, that's when you have kids sent out of state, delays in discharges [from treatment facilities and hospitals] and overcapacity in foster homes. Until you fix the foster-care program at DCF, you'll never be able to get this system into compliance with the outcome measures."
Stone and other advocates said the state needs to do more to support foster families.
Attorney Ira Lustbader, now the lead lawyer for the Juan F. plaintiffs, said DCF has wasted taxpayer money trying to get out from under federal oversight rather than fixing problems that come up repeatedly in quarterly reports and legislative reviews of the sprawling, $900-million-a-year agency.
State Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein said DCF had lost ground in two consecutive quarterly reports.
"It's time for new leadership — and we have it," said Milstein, referring to Gov.-Elect Dan Malloy's nomination of state Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz as commissioner of DCF. "I'm encouraged. For the first time in a long time, I'm optimistic."
Mancuso reported that DCF's ability to meet the needs of children in its custody "is compromised by a number of current issues," including the lack of a sufficient number of foster and adoptive resources; the closing of units and cottages at Riverview Hospital and Connecticut Children's Place due to fiscal and staffing considerations; the reduction of 46 community-based beds; the continued lack of appropriate in-state residential services; and the lack of openings in specialized group homes.
Mancuso said these issues have "meant fewer options to meet children's treatment and placement needs."
Mancuso also cited waiting lists "for in-home services, specialized foster care, life skills, transition services, domestic violence, and substance abuse services."
The report said "these and other issues lead to delays in placement, discharge delays, children being placed in poorly matched, often more restrictive levels of care, disruptions in treatment and placement, and significant delays in implementing essential services that might maintain children in their home or enable a timely reunification."
Outgoing DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton said DCF has continued to make progress on numerous fronts in the last several years, something advocates do not dispute. Hamilton cited lower caseloads, a decrease in the overall number of children in the child-protection system, fewer instances of repeat abuse against children and fewer children being removed from their homes.
But Lustbader said the latest report was a sweeping rebuke of an agency that has been shown time and again where the problems lie.
"It's all there in these quarterly reports. Nothing is new. They provide a roadmap," Lustbader said. "We're excited to sit down with the new administration. We want this lawsuit to end successfully for these kids. Fixing DCF is doable — if they don't take the path of their predecessors."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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