Reform urged for Dept. of Children and Families

Is the Connecticut Department of Children and Families broken beyond repair? Connecticut’s attorney general thinks so, and at the State Capitol this week, he argued for a complete restructuring of the embattled department. DCF officials, on the other hand, say such reforms are unnecessary. Contributing reporter GRETA STETSON explores the controversy.

Citing statistics over the past few years, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families claims that it is on the improvement track. But others say that quality, not quantity, means the most when it comes to children.

In a hearing on Monday before the Connecticut legislature’s Human Services Committee and Select Committee on Children, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 called for reform to the Department of Children and Families, which both provides and oversees support for disadvantaged children. In his testimony, he suggested a complete overhaul of existing management, a breakup of the department’s responsibilities and the employment of an outside review board to recommend further reforms.

According to its Web site, the DCF exists to provide “child protection, behavioral health, juvenile justice and prevention services.” This includes support, often through contracts with outside organizations, to children who are neglected or abused, who have been placed in the juvenile justice system, or who need foster care. It often also involves the licensing and reviewing of those same organizations.

Blumenthal emphasized this point during the hearing on Monday.

“The agency cannot be both contractor and regulator,” he said in his testimony. “Doing both presents an inherent, inevitable conflict of interest.”

He also cited poor internal communication within the department and the need for a better system to prevent complaints from being “buried, ignored or neglected.”

Since 2001, Blumenthal and the Connecticut child advocate, Jeanne Milstein, have issued seven reports that highlight what they believe are problems within the DCF, as well as their recommendations for reform.

According to Blumenthal’s testimony, virtually all recommendations have been disregarded. This time, though, Blumenthal and Milstein have gone directly before the legislature in hopes of procuring corrective action. The legislature is now holding investigative hearings.

In a telephone interview, Milstein described the need for progressive leadership within the DCF, as opposed to their current “reactive leadership.”

“We need the right people with the right skills in the right positions to actualize and sustain improvement,” she said.

Part of Monday’s hearing was devoted to the case of Michael Brown Jr., a seven-month-old who died of blunt head trauma while in foster care at the home of a DCF employee, Suzanne Listro. Though she had had a history of child abuse, the charges were never substantiated, and so they did not appear on the background checks done on her during her foster parent review. Directly following the death, DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton issued a statement taking responsibility for the event.

It is precisely cases like these that the reforms aim to prevent.

Gary Kleeblatt, a DCF spokesman, agreed that “the investigation wasn’t thorough enough.” However, Listro’s incorrect licensing was not an example of conflict of interest on the part of the agency reviewing its own employee, he said, but rather a problem of communication between departments.

The DCF realizes that there is need of reform, Kleeblatt said, especially in getting children out of foster care or congregate care settings and giving them a permanent home.

“We’re not shrinking from any recognition of the problem,” he added.

But, he noted, he believes that the department is improving as a whole, citing lower numbers of children in foster care, more children receiving treatment while remaining at home, faster reunification of children with their families and more mental health and substance abuse services.

“We have been meeting our goals in the past five-quarters,” Kleeblatt said. “The department has examples of many improvements of which the results are being felt.”

Milstein said that those improvements are “measures of quantity, not quality.” She hopes that, in the future, the DCF will be required to report back to her office on a regular basis. Other agencies, such as the judicial branch and the Department of Correction, have seen significant improvement after being held accountable to the Office of the Child Advocate.

Milstein also cited the need for quality indicators, such as children going to the doctor or the dentist.

“Children have to have their needs met,” she said.

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