The state of Connecticut on Tuesday asked a federal court to end 20 years of federal oversight of its child welfare agency, arguing that the agency has made significant progress toward reducing caseloads, expanding the agency's budget and making more services available to troubled families.
"My view is, enough is enough already," said Susan Hamilton, the Department of Children and Families commissioner. "I'm proud of the condition our system is in now."
Hamilton is the sixth person to oversee the agency since the federal oversight stemming from a 1989 lawsuit claiming widespread violations of child-welfare laws began.
She said DCF has been completely transformed over the past two decades.
As a social worker at the department in the 1990s, Hamilton said she used to hear stories about workers with 40 to 60 cases at a time, with little training. Today, she said, investigators average 10 cases, and in-home services are now available for thousands of children and families to help more families remain intact.
Meanwhile, the DCF annual budget has grown from less than $250 million in the early 1990s to approximately $826 million today. The number of children in state care has declined 31 percent over the past two decades, according to DCF.
Approximately 6,000 children are in the custody of the DCF system, according to advocates who first raised concerns about the child welfare system.
"In my view, it's long overdue frankly," Hamilton said of ending the federal judicial oversight. "We have demonstrated our capacity this ought to be left in the hands of the state at this point."
Gov. M. Jodi Rell said the way Connecticut cares for children and families in crisis has been transformed.
"These are no cosmetic fixes -- they are changes that run through the very bedrock of the agency," said the Republican governor, who inherited the federal oversight. "We have amply demonstrated Connecticut's lasting commitment to improved training, care and services."
DCF estimates the state has spent more than $10 million since 1991 on the federal oversight expenses and plaintiffs' attorneys' fees.
The motion comes a day after the advocacy group Children's Rights accused DCF of not doing enough to recruit new foster and adoptive families and reduce the agency's reliance on institutions and group homes for foster children.
"This is now and has been a leadership and management issue. While other states have made great progress in better meeting the service needs of kids and families and decreasing the use of facilities and institutions for kids, Connecticut has continued to backslide on reforms," said Ira Lustbader, associate director for Children's Rights, on Monday.
The Associated Press left a message seeking comment with Lustbader about Tuesday's court filing.
Children's Rights filed a class action lawsuit in 1989 against the state of Connecticut on behalf of children in state custody or at risk of entering state custody. The suit claimed widespread violations of laws that protected children and that the child welfare system caused harm to children.
The state, in 1991, entered into an agreement with lawyers representing children in the "Juan F." class action suit to improve conditions at DCF. In 2002, the parties came up with a plan for the state to get out from under the federal court's jurisdiction -- a complicated measurement of data and outcomes on everything from adoption rates to mental health treatment for children.
Throughout the federal oversight process, Connecticut has picked up the tab for the plaintiffs in the case, paying for monitoring activities, lawyers' fees and administrative costs that Hamilton said have become duplicative.
Given the progress made at DCF, Hamilton said those funds could be spent on more important programs that the state officials believe are necessary.