There are major problems at Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families, and until they are corrected, children in the state’s care are suffering. At the same time, substantial amounts of taxpayer money go unaccounted for. Both of these areas need attention, but the children come first.
Recent audits and investigations show excessive use of restraints and seclusion to manage children in the state’s juvenile jails, such as the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and the Pueblo Girls Unit in Middletown. There’s not enough supervision when physical restraint or seclusion are used, not enough counseling, not enough clinical staff on hand, and not enough training. We’ve also learned that DCF has lagged behind in approving foster families and in completing criminal checks on such providers.
Certainly the children in this system (some 4,000 on a typical day) are some of the most difficult-to-manage juveniles in the state. Some of them are violent. Many of them regularly behave badly enough that even highly trained professionals want to throw their hands up in frustration. That’s why these kids are in custody, after all. But we need to remember that they come from some of the most dysfunctional homes in the state, and that they arrive at the DCF only after everyone else and everything else has failed them.
“The overwhelming majority of kids at CJTS and Pueblo have profound histories of trauma and often serious mental illness. Prison won’t make them better,” said Robert Francis, co-chairman of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, an advocacy group for at-risk youths.
That doesn’t make it any easier, but until and unless our state lawmakers decide to take a different tack on juvenile justice — and perhaps it’s time for a major re-think here — we owe these kids, at very least, a safe place to stay and, if we want to do more than the least we can do, an environment that is in some significant way therapeutic.
This is the job of DCF, and this is why we spend $820 million a year to run it and to pay its 3,200 employees.
Unfortunately, we have also learned that large numbers of those employees routinely show up late for work, yet still draw their full pay. Out of an audited sample of workers at four regional DCF offices, nearly a quarter were more than 10 minutes late 75 percent of the time. “Employees appear to be compensated for time not worked,” the auditors told The Connecticut Mirror.
Then there were the unexplained doubling of food costs, during the last months of 2011 and 2012, at one mental health facility run by DCF; and the loose policy (or perhaps no policy at all) for providing staff with free meals at another location; and serious questions as to whether the department actually needs the 700 state vehicles it has on hand for transporting children.
These are all major concerns, and call for some action by state leadership — whether that means better oversight or simply a management change at the top (State Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, has called for DCF Commissioner Joette Katz to be replaced.)
Whether Katz should be fired, only our state officials can decide. To her credit, Katz has put in place a comprehensive action plan “to improve clinical treatment and avoid the crisis interventions that detract from the therapeutic environment the youth require.”
Be that as it may, some critics continue to press for a more-therapeutic, less-punitive approach to juvenile justice in Connecticut, while sensible taxpayers also want to see better cost controls in the department.
We trust the governor and legislature will keep their eyes on this department (which, let us not forget, has been under federal monitoring since long before Katz took over), because it’s going to be the last chance for a lot of troubled children, the last chance to keep them from falling through the cracks.