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Motion would end federal oversight of Connecticut’s child welfare agency

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Chion Wolf
/
WNPR
State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan says the motion is a recognition that Connecticut has made enormous progress toward improving its Department of Children and Families.

After over three decades of federal court oversight, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families may see an end to the judicial arrangement. It was announced this week that the state and plaintiffs in the Juan F. consent decree filed a joint motion to end the oversight.

“This is a big deal and a tremendous milestone for the state of Connecticut,” said Sarah Eagan, state Child Advocate. “There’s no question that the state has come an enormous way in how it cares for children who have been abused and neglected.”

The motion came as a response to a lawsuit that was filed in 1989 because of allegations that DCF failed to provide adequate protective services to children. This includes lack of oversight, neglected complaints, and an overload of cases. It was also alleged that the department didn’t make stronger efforts to avoid unnecessary family separations.

Since then, the lawsuit led the department to make structural reforms. Some of the biggest changes are a reduction in caseloads and increasing staff, according to stakeholders in the lawsuit.

Steve Frederick, an attorney with the national advocacy group Children’s Rights that represents the plaintiffs, said social workers are often given too many cases to provide proper attention to a child.

“By ensuring that the [state] budget was sufficient to hire and retain enough social workers, enough case workers, so that they could devote adequate attention to each child in their care. You have a huge improvement right there,” he said.

Eagan said to maintain that balance, the department will continue to keep good data sets to show what the workload needs are and to maintain funding in order to sustain its workforce. The department requires roughly $800 million each year in both federal and state funds.

“We’re not in a state of permanent fiscal crisis, like we were in much of the previous decade, so I hope some of that pressure has been alleviated,” she said. “But a lot of dollars are needed to support optimal performance.”

The joint filing comes after a federal court monitor confirmed that DCF has met all obligations set by the court, like prioritizing keeping families together and ensuring access to healthcare services.

To keep that momentum, Eagan said there’s a need for all stakeholders to commit to the changes.

“It’s an opportunity and I think an obligation the state has to determine what performance measures it wants from DCF and what additional, if anything, is going to be needed to sustain those state-driven outcome measures,” she said.

Children’s Rights attorney Ira Lustbader said the DCF is now a different organization compared to 30 years ago.

“Now we very much have measurable and sustainable outcomes and improvements for kids and families that are served by the Connecticut child welfare system under its Department of Children and Families.”

Attorneys said the federal court has to approve the motion. A hearing date has not yet been set.