Overhaul of child welfare agency suggested

October 20, 2008 4:58:07 PM PDT
Connecticut's child welfare agency came under fire Monday from two critics who claim years of reorganizational plans haven't worked and children are not receiving the best care possible. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal suggested to state lawmakers that the Department of Children and Families needs to be partially broken up and the management completely overhauled.

State Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein said she doesn't agree with breaking up the agency, but said DCF needs to be scrutinized at all levels to make sure the right people with the right skills are in the right jobs.

"The current organization consistently fails many of Connecticut's children," Blumenthal told members of the Human Services and Children's committees. "It is a sprawling, massive, mammoth behemoth."

Gov. M. Jodi Rell's DCF commissioner and budget chief both maintained that progress is being made to improve the agency, including moving children out of institutions and into home and community settings.

Lawmakers are holding a series of investigative hearings into DCF, hoping to come up with reforms that can be approved when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. The hearings were prompted by several disturbing reports, including the death of 7-month-old Michael Brown Jr. last May while in foster care at the home of a DCF employee in Mansfield.

Legislators said they're also concerned about conditions and high costs at Riverview Hospital, Connecticut's only public psychiatric hospital for children; the chronic, deficient leadership at DCF; low rankings for reunifying families; and other issues.

Milstein said reforms have only come when the agency is under threat of federal receivership or political pressure after tragic incidents or critical reports from her office and Blumenthal's office.

"We have repeatedly seen reactive leadership rather than pro-active," she said.

DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton tried to assure legislators that her agency is not failing, despite the need for improvements in some areas. Rather, she said DCF has managed to meet or nearly meet 20 of 22 goals set by a federal court decree.

Hamilton said Blumenthal's idea of breaking up the agency would likely create "unintended fragmentation" and more obstacles for families seeking services.

"I know that we have many challenges as a system and an agency, but I think it's also important to note the progress that's been made," Hamilton said.

Lawmakers were troubled by the conflicting assessments.

"I'm very upset at the difference between the four of you at the table who have so much government experience," said Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the Select Committee on Children. "It makes our job in the legislature so much more difficult."

The state spends approximately $884 million a year on DCF. Its budget has grown by 7.8 percent per year since 2004, said Genuario.

On a given day, DCF serves approximately 35,000 children from about 16,000 families. The agency is also responsible for 52,000 children in out-of-home placements.

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