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OP-ED | Children Deserve Better Than An Underfunded, Dangerous DCF

by Susan Bigelow | Jun 27, 2014 12:20pm
(7) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Juvenile Justice, Opinion, Health Care Opinion, Mental Health Care

Sometime on Tuesday, June 24, a 16-year-old transgender girl in DCF care finally left the adult women’s prison where she’d been kept for close to two months. “Jane Doe” has never been charged with a crime, and her detention provoked a national uproar. But her release isn’t nearly the end of the troubled agency’s woes.

Earlier in the month the Office of the Child Advocate released a statement saying they would be investigating nine of the 11 deaths of children under DCF care. DCF later said that six of those deaths, all of which have occurred since the beginning of 2014, involve allegations of maltreatment.

What is going on at DCF?

Frustratingly, that’s not always easy to know. The Office of the Child Advocate investigates cases of child deaths, but there are very few that are easily available on their website. A report about 2013 deaths is forthcoming, but it may be a while before we know anything else about what’s happened this year.

The Jane Doe situation is unique in that it actually showed up on our radar. But there’s still pieces of her story that remain unresolved. In her affidavit, she alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by a staff member at Connecticut Children’s Place and by a staff member at a private Massachusetts facility where she had been placed by DCF.

Unfortunately, a lot of this isn’t totally surprising, given the agency’s troubled history and funding woes. DCF has been operating under court supervision since a 1989 class-action lawsuit alleging their predecessor agency was broadly failing to protect children in the state. The agency has struggled to stay within compliance, and has managed to meet some benchmarks for release from court supervision while missing others.

To make matters worse, DCF has suffered worsening staffing levels; a report from the agency’s court monitor in January 2014 found that the number of DCF front-line caseload-carrying social workers dropped by a shocking 29 percent since 2011.

And yet DCF found the funds to build and open a new locked treatment facility for girls in Middletown. This facility, the Pueblo Unit, is where Jane Doe is residing temporarily before being moved to a more permanent placement in Massachusetts. Pueblo was built because DCF had run out of space in Journey House, the other locked facility for girls.

The reason they ran out of space at Journey House, however, was in part because girls were not being cycled out of there quickly enough. Other options and placements for them were simply not available; budget cuts meant the loss of facilities and services across the state.

In Jane Doe’s case, the agency flailed around trying to find some sort of appropriate placement for her, even considering housing her in boys’ facilities despite having respected her gender identity up until that point, before deciding to send her to York. It’s telling that she is being sent out of state from here.

All of this paints a picture of an agency that does not have the resources to do what it needs to do.

The agency and the legislature need to answer some tough questions. First, are the problems at DCF merely the result of being strapped for cash? Or are Commissioner Joette Katz’s priorities, which advocates claim are trending toward more incarceration instead of treatment, the wrong ones?

Second, how far will we go in this state to protect the most vulnerable? How could this latest rash of child deaths have been prevented? Are we willing to accept more Jane Does suffering through systems that can’t figure out what to do with them?

What are we really willing to do to keep children safe?

The answers so far are not encouraging. It seems that we’re willing to risk the safety and well-being of children, to the point of throwing our hands up and putting them in adult prisons, instead of spending the money we need to spend and demanding accountability. We must do better.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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(7) Comments

posted by: jenand | June 27, 2014  3:12pm

Thank you Susan for speaking up for those who have no voice. At the mercy of DCF and its policies, our child welfare system has been broken for many years, Sometimes it gets a little better (like bringing kids back from Foster Homes in other states), but it never gets fixed to the point that we can trust DCF.  Perhaps we should turn this problem over to the Schools of Social Work in our state. I’d love to see what a team of eager soon to be grads might come up with. We need reform, and elimination of staff who are no longer effective and dedicated.

posted by: rankandfile | June 27, 2014  4:04pm

Budget cuts? FY 94 DCF spending was $227,630,400. FY 13 $831,868,629. That’s roughly an average 7% annual increase every year for 19 years.

posted by: One and Done | June 28, 2014  8:55am

Underfunded?  What are you smoking?  By DCF’s own admission they are spending $55,000 per family they service per year.  What exactly is enough?

posted by: 4kids | June 28, 2014  9:27am

Jane Doe did not go to York because DCF lacked alternatives. In fact, Katz used Jane Doe’s story to convince the legislature that she needed Pueblo. As usual, the legislature gave the commissioner what she wanted. Katz then sent the kid to prison anyway. Why is she still employed?
rankandfile is right. It’s not a question of resources. It’s a question of policy - bad policy.

posted by: mwh31 | June 29, 2014  10:42am

DCF is NOT the only agency involved with or responsible for helping children who need help. We need ALL these agencies to be coordinated and supporting each other, streamlining, not duplicating while at the same time closing the cracks that many children fall into. It starts with those who interact with the children EARLY, before the problems become the concern of DCF. It starts with ensuring mothers (and other members of the family) know of available support, potential problems etc from the moment of the child’s BIRTH. We need pediatricians, ERs treating children, pre-school providers, day care providers, etc. all working together to perhaps lower the number of kids/families that wind up with huge, hard-to-solve problems.

posted by: Joebigjoe | June 29, 2014  4:54pm

7% increase every year for 19 years, and an average of 55K per family.

No one wants kids abused but is it possible that many of the issues we have in society today with mass shooters and heavily funded state agencies like DCF in CT, are because we got away with what worked for 300 years or more with raising children?

No one wants a child to be abused. NO ONE! However when I was a wise ass in front of my father and teachers and classmates in high school he slapped me in the mouth and I was bleeding. Today he would be arrested and there would be investigations. Back then I learned a lesson and the teachers response to him was ” Mr. .... I can see that you have things under control” and his response was “yes I do” with a knowing smile”.

Let parents be parents and lets spend the money on the ones truly abused and don’t give me any garbage that getting the belt for a very severe infraction, mouth rinsed out with soap, or a slap in the face or rear end is abuse. Its only abuse since we became “enlightened” and look where that got us. Kids that threaten their parents with calling DCF so they dont get properly punished and for some infractions physical punishment under control was appropriate.

posted by: Bulldog1 | June 30, 2014  9:03am

The real issue is how resources used.  Are the right staff hired in the right places?  Are the staff free to do what’s necessary to protect a child? 
It’s easy to say simply slap the kid silly and he’ll behave but here in Eastern CT we’ve had three babies beaten to death because they cried and the guy watching them couldn’t stand it anymore.  Is crying misbehavior? 

55K per family sounds a lot like incareration is the model we use most. By the way Corrections Officers who are friends tell me that 40% of the inmates in State prisons are mentally ill.  So we closed the Norwich and Blue Hills State hospitals and wound up putting them in regualr prisons.  At great cost to the taxpayer.

There’s no good work here. 4Kids is right: Bad policy and lots of it.