Sen. Suzio: At DCF, “there was a chain of failures.”

December 18, 2017

Hearing Set On ‘Systemic Failures’ In Matthew Tirado Starvation Case 

Hartford Courant

Amid a renewed call for child-protection Commissioner Joette Katz’s resignation, the legislature’s children’s committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the failure of several agencies to save the life of Matthew Tirado, 17.

“We need a clear view of why this system broke down for this young man,” said Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, co-chairwoman of the committee. 

She said the hearing Tuesday at 10 a.m. in the Legislative Office Building will be the first of a series that examines the decisions and actions of the people tasked with protecting vulnerable children, and will likely lead to new legislation next year.

For example, Urban said the Department of Children and Families needs more authority to contact children against the parents’ wishes when there are safety concerns.

Child Advocate Sarah Eagan and Katz will answer questions from the committee in what is called an informational forum. 

Members of the public can’t speak at this stage.

Matthew, who was autistic, intellectually disabled, and nonverbal, died in February of starvation and prolonged physical abuse.

His mother has been charged with manslaughter and cruelty.

A report by Eagan’s office, released Tuesday, spotlighted the failure of DCF to lay eyes on Matthew even once during a nine-month period during which the mother, Katiria Tirado kept Matthew out of school under the pretense of home-schooling him, and refused to let authorities in the door.

Police would later learn that the mother had locked the cabinets and refrigerator, leaving Matthew to scrounge through the garbage for scraps.

After Matthew’s death, the medical examiner found he was emaciated and malnourished, weighed 84 pounds, and had the scars, bruises and healed rib fractures associated with prolonged physical abuse. He also had bed sores.

Katz said in an interview that the department “had no idea” that Matthew was being physically injured and starved, and that DCF lacks the authority to intervene under those circumstances.

But Eagan’s 80-page report identified errors and bewildering decisions, including DCF’s closure of its case on the Tirado family before seeing Matthew and his sister, that were compounded by omissions by Hartford Public Schools, and Matthew’s court-appointed lawyer.

“There’s blame to go around,” said Sen. Len Suzio of Meriden, Republican co-chair of the children’s committee.”I get goosebumps reading this report.There was a chain of failures, and this was a horrifying way for him to die. It was slow, and he suffered.”

Sen. Len Fasano, the Republican president pro tem, again called for Katz’s resignation, sending a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Tuesday after the child advocate’s report came out.

Fasano said too many preventable deaths and injuries have resulted from “failing procedures and a lack of oversight at DCF. Instead of being open to reform, the agency’s commissioner has refused to take responsibility or listen to the voices of the advocates.”

He said in the letter to Malloy that while no child-protection agency can stop every tragedy, “there is a pattern of problems under the current commissioner that you have turned a blind eye to for far too long.”

Malloy continues to stand by Katz.

In a news release Wednesday on a development in a long-standing federal lawsuit against DCF, Malloy said “The court’s decision to streamline the process of ending federal oversight is certainly a welcome one and is a testament to the improvements that DCF has made in its commitment to providing a family-oriented approach to child welfare under the leadership of Commissioner Katz.”

Suzio said he understand’s Fasano’s position but isn’t ready to echo the call for Katz’s resignation.

“I haven’t come to a conclusion. I want to hear more about the Matthew Tirado case, and I want to see if lower caseloads have any effect,” Suzio said.

The federal court recently directed the state to reduce caseloads of DCF social workers by an average of 25 percent.

Urban, who supports Katz, said, “Whenever there is a fatality, people start calling for people’s heads — and that’s not productive. Grandstanding is easy. Finding and correcting systemic failures is work.”

Urban said that in Matthew’s case, “clearly, everyone was looking at this as chronic absenteeism — so there was a breakdown in communication. Why? DCF is using technology that is spitting out information that is not useful to caseworkers. Why?”

Urban said the department needs more authority to act in the face of resistance by parents.

“I have not been able to get that done. It gets killed,” said Urban, adding that she will mount another effort to grant DCF more latitude to act.