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State, plaintiffs in Juan F. case seek end to DCF’s federal oversight

Seeking to end federal oversight of the state Department of Children and Families, the state and plaintiffs in the decades-old Juan F. consent decree filed a motion on Monday to exit the arrangement.

“Over the past 32 years, [DCF] has made organizational and operational changes that have dramatically improved the way the agency provides services to children and families in Connecticut,” attorneys for the state and the plaintiffs wrote in court papers. “These changes have positively impacted children and families involved with DCF. The department has also implemented policies and practices that are designed to ensure that these improvements will be sustained.”

In 1989, lawyers for 10-year-old Juan F. and other children filed the lawsuit, challenging DCF’s (then the Department of Children and Youth Services) practices, funding and policies in relation to neglected or abused children in custody and those who may be put into DCF custody.

The state struck a deal with the plaintiffs in 1991, entering into the decree, which set new staffing ratios and laid out sweeping new policies for the department. The decree also required the court to appoint a monitor who would ensure the mandates were met.

The state has made varied degrees of progress over the years. In 2017, a federal judge ordered Connecticut to commit to certain staffing and caseload levels for social workers as a key step toward ending oversight of the agency. By the following year, the department had hired 120 new employees, allowing DCF to reduce worker caseloads.

In a 2018 report, Raymond Mancuso, the court-appointed monitor, noted that DCF had met its goals for decreasing the number of children in group facilities and institutions, placing more children with siblings, limiting the number of moves for children in foster care and ensuring that children are placed in homes operating within their licensed capacity. The department fell short in the areas of investigation practice, case planning process, meeting children and families’ service needs, and appropriate visitation with household and family members of the agency’s in-home cases, he wrote.

A 2019 report by Mancuso noted that DCF was failing to comply with five of the 10 important measures in the oversight plan, including providing enough mental health and substance abuse services and sufficiently engaging older children in their own case plans. Concerns were also raised about the quality of child abuse and neglect investigations and with case worker visits for children who remain in their family’s home under agency supervision.

The following year, for the first time in almost three decades, the monitor found that DCF had sufficiently lowered caseloads for social workers. “Reasonable caseload sizes and relative stability in the workforce allow the Department to better concentrate on the best practice issues so important to the outcomes for children and families,” Mancuso wrote.

Vannessa Dorantes, commissioner of DCF, commended the work that her department has done.

“The DCF of today benefits from three decades ... of child welfare evolutions and positions Connecticut to lead best practice areas and improved outcomes in support of the children and families we serve,” she said in a statement Monday.

Plaintiffs and the state are awaiting a federal court date for the motion to be heard.

“We are grateful for the collaboration between the plaintiffs, court monitor, Office of the Attorney General, and the Department of Children and Families to bring forth this legal filing,” Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday. “Children and families will continue to be in the forefront of our efforts moving forward.”