30 years on, little has changed

Perhaps no cases better illustrate the limits of the courts to solve social ills than the Sheff and Juan F. cases, which both celebrate 30th anniversaries this year.

On April 27, 1989, 18 school-age children in Hartford filed a civil lawsuit contending the lower funding and educational opportunities in areas with majority black and Latino populations as compared with their primarily white, suburban counterparts violated the Connecticut Constitution. The Sheff vs. O’Neill lawsuit became known for its lead plaintiff, fourth-grader Milo Sheff, and its primary defendant, Gov. William A. O’Neill.

Also in 1989, a group of child advocate agencies filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Connecticut Department of Children and Families for failing to provide needed services for abused and neglected children. It became known as the Juan F. case for the anonymous 10-year-old who had been bounced among 11 different foster families in three years.

In both cases the plaintiffs prevailed.

In Sheff, Judge Harry Hammer originally ruled in 1995 for the state, finding no constitutional mandate to correct educational inequities, calling that a problem for the legislature and, ultimately the people, to correct through the political process.

Hammer, however, was overturned one year later by a 4-3 state Supreme Court decision that found the students had a constitutional right to an education not substantially and materially impaired by racial and ethnic isolation.

Victory for the plaintiffs came quicker in Juan F. when, in 1991, the state signed a consent decree promising to carry out reforms and reach various goals, with a court monitor appointed in 1992 to determine when the state had met its obligations and could exit court oversight.

Thirty years later, while there has been some progress, most Hartford students remain in segregated, underperforming schools. Hartford itself is debt-ridden, only avoiding bankruptcy due to a state bailout. Other poor urban centers with large minority populations likewise still struggle academically.

Quality magnet and charter schools created in the wake of Sheff have provided superior educational opportunities for many, but demand far outstrips supply, leaving the less fortunate in struggling neighborhood schools.

And while state funding to problem urban districts has increased, test scores have not.

Meanwhile in Juan F. the current federal court monitor, Ray Mancuso, recently issued his latest report. DCF is in compliance with only half of the 10 measures contained in its exit plan. 

The report received little attention from state media. After three decades it has become routine.

My expectation is that if child care agencies in the other 49 states were subjected to the same measures, few if any would meet all 10 criteria.

Mancuso noted particular concern about the heavy caseload of agency social workers and the outdated technology they use for record keeping. But societal ills keep spitting out neglected and abused children. State budget constraints prevent hiring the army of social workers, and buying the technology, to meet the demand.

Coincidentally, Joette Katz, as a state Supreme Court justice, cast a decisive vote in favor of Sheff in the 4-3 decision. Later she would leave the court to become DCF commissioner under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, where, after eight years of trying, she could not get her agency out from under the Juan F. ruling. Vannessa Dorantes is the new commissioner.

Courts have played a mighty role in working towards equality, including finding segregation laws unconstitutional and assuring people can marry whom they love regardless of gender. But courts can take things only so far.

The hard work rests with us, through smart policies and effective use of the ballot box. The Constitution gives us the ability to make great change. But how we will use it?

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.



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