I wholeheartedly agree with child welfare advocates who say that children should, whenever possible and when safe to do so, be kept in their homes. Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone who would disagree.
But when obvious red flags are ignored for the sake of keeping a child at home, then there is a serious problem. That is why I disagree with Richard Wexler’s portrayal of what is happening in Connecticut, and his unfair criticism of the state’s child advocate and lawmakers who have raised concerns: Infant Dylan’s case: How Fasano — and Eagan — are getting it wrong, Oct 15, 2016].
Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families is failing in its core function — to keep children safe. In too many cases, agency workers have ignored red flags. Many individuals throughout the agency have failed to take reasonable steps, whether increased supervision and supports or, if necessary, temporary change of residence, to ensure children’s safety. Those systemic failures speak to a larger failure in leadership.
After reading the recent chilling report from the Office of the Child Advocate about the near death of baby Dylan, I called for Commissioner [Joette] Katz to resign. But it was not the first time I called for a change in leadership at DCF. I did the same after learning about the systemic abuse and mistreatment of children at DCF’s locked facilities and DCF’s failure to investigate whistleblower complaints about what was happening behind closed doors.
I also did the same after learning about the tragic death of Londyn S. following DCF’s failure to adequately assess the risks that child was living with or provide adequate services to the home. It is not just one case that causes me to ask for Commissioner Katz to step down, but her unwillingness to accept outside advice and insistence that all is well inside the agency, when it clearly is not.
For years I have not only raised my voice when I saw problems at DCF, but I have also offered solutions. I’ve proposed multiple pieces of legislation that sought to implement stronger quality assurance measures and independent review and oversight. Despite support for these proposals from advocates, Commissioner Katz has consistently rejected these increased protections.
I understand that Mr. Wexler, a Washington D.C. based child welfare advocate, is focused on a national agenda and single goal of increasing kinship placements and keeping children in their homes. I too support family preservation. But you can’t support family preservation at all costs. Child safety always has to come first and foremost.
The problem in Connecticut that I see is that the pendulum has swung too far under Commissioner Katz and resulted in children being kept in unsafe homes. We saw it happen with the tragic cases of Athena Angeles and Londyn Sack. We’ve also seen children placed in unsafe relative foster care, as in the baby Dylan case.
The number one priority should be keeping kids safe wherever that is — not promoting a particular policy with blinders on to all other factors.
Certainly tragedy can occur even within the best child welfare agency. But refusal to accept counsel from others is why I question Commissioner Katz’s ability to move DCF forward.
In private emails included in the child advocate’s report, Commissioner Katz admitted to having lost “confidence in our ability to monitor ourselves.” Yet publicly she has refused to adopt nationally recognized and objective quality assurance standards or submit to independent oversight and review. And in the past six years as commissioner, she has not been able to meet any court monitor benchmarks beyond what was already achieved prior to her appointment.
Connecticut’s DCF certainly has a long way to go. I believe a leader who refuses to acknowledge the issues or hear the concerns and suggestions of others is not capable of leading the agency forward. We need conversation, we need to look at ways to stop the systemic failures from continuing throughout the agency, and we need openness from all parties to make that happen.
Len Fasano, R-North Haven, is Minority Leader of the Connecticut State Senate.