DCF's challenge

Rep. Diana Urban's frustration with the continuing federal oversight of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families is understandable. This year marks the 10th anniversary of a federal judge's order that the DCF had to reach a series of benchmarks before federal supervision could end.

The case is far older than that, beginning with a 1989 class-action lawsuit documenting the state's failure to adequately provide for abused and neglected children. Numerous rulings and orders led ultimately to the 2004 "Exit Plan" in which both sides agreed to the milestones the agency needed to reach to prove it was getting the job done.

During a recent hearing Rep. Urban, the North Stonington Democrat who chairs the Committee on Children, questioned whether all the benchmarks were reasonable. There is the potential, she said, that an agency that has made great strides in improving services will continue under the federal yoke indefinitely. Her fear is that long-term oversight will have a demoralizing effect on an agency striving to improve.

The agency has met many of the standards set in the 2004 agreement, but not all for the six consecutive months called for to end federal intervention. Most problematic are random samplings that must demonstrate that eight of every 10 children under state supervision receive proper medical and dental services and live in adequate housing. Rep. Urban said many "normal" families would have difficulty meeting those goals, never mind the type of dysfunctional situations and foster placements the state is dealing with. Another bar that has proved too high is demonstrating nine of every 10 cases reviewed have adequate management plans in place.

There is no question DCF is doing better under the leadership of Commissioner Joette Katz, appointed in 2011. DCF has reduced out-of-state placements, reduced the number of kids in group-home settings and is keeping more children with families.

Rep. Urban may be right that at some point the matter should return to court to determine if both sides can agree on moderating some benchmarks. That time is not now. Commissioner Katz estimates the exit goals can be achieved in a year to 18 months. Perhaps at that time, if the DCF is oh so close, it would be time to re-evaluate benchmarks.

Other states facing similar oversight have worked their way out of it. Despite Rep. Urban's misgivings, the Connecticut DCF may ultimately prove it is up to the task as well.

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