Op-ed: Moving Juvenile Justice To Problem-Plagued DCF A Mistake [Courant]

March 9, 2015

Op-ed by State Senator Len Fasano, as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget includes plans to strip Connecticut’s Judicial Branch of its juvenile justice programs and hand that authority over to the Department of Children and Families.

This plan would be a huge mistake for Connecticut’s children. It would transfer control over a vulnerable population of children to the executive branch of state government, and into the hands of an agency already struggling to meet the needs of children under its watch and targeted for repeated budget cuts by Gov. Malloy.

The governor’s plan would move 755 positions and $248.6 million to DCF. The move doesn’t appear to be a way to enhance the current system or promote efficiency. Rather, it appears to be a move that would simply transfer more employees and more money to the executive branch where the governor can control it. This proposal is about power, not progress.

As Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers said, “Our concern is that we have seen no evidence substantiating how this proposal will result in greater efficiencies or better outcomes in the criminal justice system, the juvenile justice system or the family court system. Additionally, we do not agree that the proposal will result in budgetary savings.”

It’s clear that this proposal would give the governor new authority to make budget decisions for programs he currently cannot touch. But it’s not clear how this shift in control would improve services or even preserve current levels of success. In fact, all signs point to the opposite when you consider the effectiveness of our Judicial Department compared to the dysfunction plaguing DCF.

In the past year, DCF has come under fire from child advocates for an alarming number of catastrophic problems.

•There has been an unprecedented increase in child homicides under DCF’s watch, mostly due to abuse and neglect.

•Children are not getting the care they need because DCF has closed group homes with inadequate planning and insufficient community services in place.

•DCF’s juvenile justice facilities have been decried by child advocates for unnecessary use of physical restraints and seclusion. The Connecticut Child Advocate reported DCF for possible child abuse for the use of dangerous prone restraints on vulnerable children and warned about a correlation between restraints, seclusion and suicidal behavior.

•DCF is failing more quality benchmarks now than in 2009 before this administration took office and, according to the latest report, failed to meet 287 significant needs involving child health safety and welfare, compared to just 136 in 2010.

Some of the problems that DCF faces are similar to the challenges the state’s Judicial Branch has successfully overcome through self-assessment and collaboration. But DCF shows no signs of implementing these same programs and protections.

For example, the Judicial Branch has an independent ombudsman for children in juvenile detention. The Judicial Branch also has a quality assurance program that has helped improve conditions and reduce the use of restraints and time spent out of program. DCF has refused to implement these measures, which are universally supported by child advocates.

A review of DCF’s juvenile justice programs by Georgetown University found that DCF’s data systems were so fragmented that it was nearly impossible to analyze the performance of its programs. The report noted, “It took time and substantial effort to assemble even the most basic data. It is impossible to establish or manage a modern data-driven parole system without valid and reliable data. The DCF-JSD cannot advance significantly without objective data and performance outcomes.”

Connecticut is one of few states to maintain a dual agency juvenile justice system, so it makes sense that the governor wants to consolidate programs to achieve administrative efficiencies. But it doesn’t make sense that he wants to shift the authority over to an agency that he can, and has, cut significantly and that is failing to meet the needs of the children currently under its care.

If the governor truly wants to improve conditions and outcomes for Connecticut’s children, he should consider consolidating under the Judicial Branch, where children’s needs are actually being met — not under DCF.

Len Fasano, R-North Haven, is the senate minority leader and represents the 34th District.