DCF’s Katz and Sen. Fasano Square Off Over Agency Oversight, Accountability [Courant]

February 6, 2015

Hartford Courant
The Republican leader of the state Senate and child-protection Commissioner Joette Katz squared off Thursday at a public hearing over three GOP proposals to increase public oversight of the Department of Children and Families and create an independent ombudsman’s office.

Sen. Leonard Fasano’s bills were among a dozen aired before the legislature’s Committee on Children. Included was a separate bill to improve treatment of children who witness domestic violence. Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and state child Advocate Sarah Eagan testified in support of that bill.

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, spoke in favor of a proposal to strengthen protection of infants, in light of an increase in the number of children under 3 in Connecticut who have died from maltreatment and unsafe sleeping conditions. The DCF has begun a public-awareness campaign about unsafe sleep and is working with a national foundation to better protect infants in high-risk households.

Eagan testified that an overreliance on seclusion and restraints persists at the DCF’s juvenile-justice facilities, including the Connecticut Juvenile Training School for boys and the Pueblo unit for girls, both in Middletown. She said the DCF’s system of collecting data on its own performance and improving its response “remains incoherent, unreliable and opaque.”

Fasano, of North Haven, proposed that DCF adopt stronger quality-assurance measures at the training school, and that the Office of the Child Advocate become the primary agency reviewing child fatalities.

The child advocate’s office and its fatality review board already investigate child deaths and recommends reform, while DCF internally examines the death cases for personnel issues and flaws in any of its protocols. The theme of Fasano’s remarks was that he distrusts DCF to do internal reviews.

Katz, seated in the gallery waiting for her turn to speak, slowly shook her head as Fasano reported that he’d heard from parents, group-home providers and others that DCF had closed a group home with as little as three days’ notice, and without an adequate plan for the displaced children.

He said the youth could “find themselves out on the street.”

Fasano, who has been a vocal critic of the DCF, said he was relating anecdotes to the children’s committee based on conversations with teenagers, DCF staff members, parents, and providers, but wasn’t vouching for the truth of what he was told.

Katz, joined at the hearing by an entourage of top DCF officials, said: “I have never closed a group home in three days.” She said homes aren’t closed until every child has an alternative placement, a process that can take weeks or months.

Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Cheshire, co-chair of the children’s committee, asked that Fasano’s allegation be addressed and that the response be made part of the hearing record.

DCF’s marked shift away from group care in favor of foster homes and community treatment has resulted in the closing of some group homes. There are now 829 fewer DCF children in group homes than there were in January 2011, a 56 percent drop. In turn, more relatives and mentors of children are stepping up as foster parents.

But advocates have questioned whether DCF is adequately funding the community and foster-care programs, and spending enough time and money recruiting, training, retaining, and overseeing foster parents. Katz testified that DCF has saved $70 million from reducing group-home placements and has invested $49 million of the savings in community and foster-care programs, and supporting foster parents.

Katz, who reviews all requests for group care, said there are more than enough residential facilities in Connecticut to handle the children who need a higher level of treatment and therapy than is available in foster homes.

Fasano said he supports an independent ombudsman, as opposed to DCF’s own five-person ombudsman’s office, which answers, ultimately, to Katz. He said questions, grievances, and complaints would receive a more objective review by an independent office.

Eagan, the child advocate, also testified in favor of an independent ombudsman, though she would preserve DCF’s internal office.

“An ombudsman can be a voice for children and youth confined in juvenile justice facilities (and) investigate complaints, report findings and make recommendations for change,” Eagan said.

She said DCF’s internal office “responds to many calls and concerns from family members and child welfare stakeholders. Concurrent use of an independent ombudsman who can address the needs of youth in care, particularly those in facilities, should also be considered,” Eagan said.

Kenneth Mysogland, who directs DCF’s ombudsman program, testified that his office handled just shy of 3,000 inquiries last year and is committed to treating each concern in a comprehensive and fair manner. Mysogland said he visits DCF’s large facilities and interacts with the youth, staff members, public defenders, Eagan, and others.

Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, the ranking Republican on the children’s committee, asked Katz if she agreed with any of Fasano’s proposals.

She said she didn’t.

“I have a hard time embracing recommendations if I feel they are built on faulty foundations,” said Katz, adding that she found Fasano’s proposals to be unnecessary.

For example, she said, that the training school in Middletown is nationally accredited and doesn’t need additional, or different, quality assessments, as Fasano suggested. But advocates have in recent months pressed DCF to adopt performance standards that better measure the conditions at the training school.

Eagan testified that her office strongly supports the proposal to “strengthen quality assurance and transparency for state-run and state contracted juvenile justice facilities—thereby enabling a greater opportunity to address urgent and significant concerns about conditions of confinement for some juveniles and facilitating well-informed, collaborative juvenile justice response.”

Eagan noted that the Judicial Branch’s juvenile services division uses a performance assessment developed by the U.S. Department of Justice to improve conditions in juvenile detention centers.

Katz said she welcomes all manner of input and believes the department oeprates under “the public microscope.” But she said the agency should monitor itself. The children’s committee took no action on the bills Thursday. The panel at a later date will vote on which measures to send on to the full House or Senate,