Lawmaker Tells His Colleagues To Pay Attention To Federal Audit of Child Welfare Agency

April 20, 2017

Article as it appeared in CT News Junkie

HARTFORD, CT — It was largely a public hearing about the spending cap, which is why his message in support of Connecticut’s children may have gotten lost.

Senate Republican President Len Fasano, R-North Haven, made a passionate plea to the Appropriations Committee earlier this month, asking members to pay attention to a federal audit of the Department of Children and Families.

“Kids are dying, kids are being abused and there has not been enough voices in this building speaking out,” Fasano said, criticizing his fellow lawmakers for not being more outspoken.

His position is not a surprise. He’s asked DCF Commissioner Joette Katz to resign on three occasions and he’s asked the governor to fire Katz on at least two occasions. But his criticisms have been largely dismissed by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration.

“Enough is enough,” Fasano said April 3. “We have to protect those who can’t protect themselves.”

He was speaking in support of legislation introduced by Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee and the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee (JJPOC). One of Walker’s bills would establish a Child Welfare Oversight Committee and another would extend Connecticut’s current contract with University of New Haven as it relates to the work of the JJPOC. Walker thanked Fasano for his advocacy on the issue.

Fasano said the reports about abused and neglected children turn your stomach, “but I have yet to see outrage in this building.”

“If this federal report doesn’t wake up to this building, I don’t know what will,” Fasano said.

The same day Fasano was making his remarks to the Appropriations Committee, federal officials were explaining their findings to state officials and lawmakers.

The audit by the Children’s Bureau, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, “found that the agency practice is inconsistent in assessing safety and risk in the child’s living environment and in preventing children’s removal from their homes.”

The audit also found that Connecticut’s child welfare agency is not in substantial conformity with any of the seven child and family outcomes related to children’s safety, permanency, and well-being. The state was found to be in compliance with two of the seven systemic factors: agency responsiveness to community and quality assurance.

Fasano said if they are a “data driven” legislature, then they need to be paying attention to this data, which shows the state is doing worse today than just two years ago.

One of the audit’s performance standards was that “children are, first and foremost, protected from abuse and neglect.” On that statement the audit said only 59 percent of the 41 applicable cases reviewed show that it was substantially met. Of the 13 other states that have undergone similar audits by the federal government, Connecticut performed the third worst based on that safety standard. It was also well below the mean of 72 percent for that one standard.

But Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, pointed out that none of the states audited met all of the federal standards.

In an email to all the members of the Appropriations Committee, Katz said the remarks made by Fasano “were based on a superficial understanding” of the federal audit, which is called the Child and Family Services Review (CSFR).

Katz said “no safety alerts were identified” in the audit, which reviewed 82 cases sampled from all 14 Connecticut DCF offices.

“By way of historical background, the CFSR has been occurring since 2001, and no state has been found to be in substantial conformity in all of the seven outcome areas and seven systemic factors,” Katz wrote.

She also said the program improvement plan, which Connecticut will undergo as a result of the audit, is “something done by all jurisdictions.”

She said the sample size of 82 cases used by the feds “is not statistically representative, given the approximately 13,000 possible cases in the universal for the sample period.”

Fasano countered in his own email to the Appropriations Committee that instead of acknowledging the “severity of the facts presented by the federal report — the same facts the Child Advocate has brought to our attention time and time again — Commissioner Katz sent lawmakers an email trying to rationalize the report findings.”

He said it’s “like watching a child come home with a bad report card and try to explain to their parents why it’s the teacher’s fault.”

Fasano said to blame the small sample size “completely ignores the fact that these are real cases, with real lives at risk, in which the agency failed to properly protect children.”

According to all other state reports to date, Fasano said, Connecticut is below the mean in all seven child and family outcome measures.

“While this reality directly contradicts the national success story that some like to tout, it is a serious warning sign that we as policy makers cannot ignore,” Fasano said.

Urban, who co-chairs the Children’s Committee, said the presentation of the information from the federal audit report was not a “gotcha moment.” She said the goal was to make sure that a “robust” improvement plan can be developed from it.

“We recognize that in our work with the Department of Children and Families we can always strive to do better,” Urban said.

At the same time, she said as somebody who is “immersed in data we’re very pleased with our results and quality improvement.”

She pointed out that all states are required to implement improvement plans because none of the states met all the standards outlined in the report.

Walker said she constantly hears about all this data DCF has that’s being used to improve outcomes. However, Walker said the agency has refused to share the data with the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee.

Urban and Walker have two divergent opinions regarding the performance of the agency.

Dennis Souza, child welfare specialist with the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, told lawmakers that the safety issues raised by the audit include both strengths and challenges.

“When safety practices were strong, we saw that interviews were held on a regular basis with all family members, including the children,” Souza said. “… When safety practices weren’t as strong, we saw that they were missing certain things in their assessment.”

For instance, “They weren’t interviewing new members coming into the household,” Souza said. “Or they were missing the ongoing monitoring of safety planning.”

Urban believes the agency needs more resources and staff in order to achieve its goals. Souza said the audit doesn’t assess resources.

Linda Mitchell, a supervisor with the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, said Connecticut isn’t the only state struggling with finding permanency for children. She said the opioid epidemic is “crushing” and “clogging” the front end of the system in all the states they review.

Already Connecticut lawmakers have voted down a settlement in the Juan F. consent decree.

The U.S. District Court had reduced the number of outcomes to be monitored from 22 to 6. But federal officials said they are measuring practices differently than the federal court monitor.

“Specifically, in the safety outcomes, the Court Monitor assesses timely initiation and completion of investigations. The CFSR assesses timely face-to-face contact with alleged victims of abuse and neglect. The CFSR review process revealed that DCF lacks policy that clearly defines timelines for face-to-face contact with all alleged victims in the family,” federal auditors said in the narrative of their report.

The audit goes onto state that “In general, case reviews found that the agency practice is inconsistent in assessing safety and risk in the child’s living environment and in preventing children’s removal from their homes.”

Fasano fears if lawmakers don’t intervene something bad is going to happen to another child in Connecticut.

Last October, the Office of the Child Advocate concluded that the “near-death from starvation and abuse” of a toddler points to systemic issues with some of the state’s recently touted kinship foster placements.

The report came a month after a news conference during which Malloy and Katz touted increased kinship placements for DCF-involved children.