By JON LENDERCourant Staff Writer
August 12 2008
Angered by problems such as rising costs and the use of potentiallydangerous restraints at the state's psychiatric hospital for children,legislators are planning an investigation into the performance of theDepartment of Children and Families.
"The story here is a long, sad, sort of fall of a state agency — a major state agency," said Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the legislature's Select Committee on Children.
Meyer said the hearing would cover not only problems at the DCF-run Riverview Hospital in Middletown, but also issues such as DCF's difficulties for years in complying with a federal court "consent decree" on standards for foster care and the recent death of an infant who was a foster child under the care of a DCF worker.
The committee head said he and Sen. Jonathan Harris, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislative Human Services Committee, have agreed to schedule a joint investigative hearing, probably next month.
Meyer made his comments on the day The Courant published a story about the latest report from state Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein about conditions at Riverview, the only state mental hospital for children up to age 17.
In her July 17 report, Milstein criticized DCF, which runs Riverview, for nearly doubling in 18 months the use of physical restraints and seclusion to control the young patients. That was despite pledges to reduce such methods as part of a national movement that began with the 1998 death of a young patient at a former private Connecticut psychiatric hospital.
Milstein also said the latest state comptroller's figures show that it costs more than $860,000 per child each year for care at Riverview, while the cost of workers compensation for hospital workers' injuries exceeds $2 million a year.
"We're just not seeing the kind of results that can justify $860,000 per child per year," Meyer said. "It raises questions about whether or not this is an agency that should be reorganized." He said the agency gets nearly $1 billion a year in state funds.
Meyer said the list of witnesses for the hearing, which could last days, would start with DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton and other department officials, "and if we have any reluctance on the part of witnesses to testify, we'll use the power of subpoena."
DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said the department will cooperate. "We're always happy to participate in the legislative activity regarding children's issues," he said. "We will fully engage legislators in any interest they have for information and discussion."
Meyer said DCF does not communicate well with his committee, which has "oversight" responsibility over it. He said that he and Hamilton "hardly ever talk," and "when I call her and ask her to report on something, she replies to me in monosyllables. Her legislative liaison ... has not talked to me in the year 2008."
"I don't have this kind of a problem with the other departments we oversee," he said, adding that he's co-chairman or vice-chairman of panels overseeing the state's environmental protection and elections enforcement agencies, whose top officials are "in regular contact with me. It is DCF that is out there operating without ... wanting to allow any legislative oversight."
But Kleeblatt said, "We have made efforts ... to reach out to Sen. Meyer. Commissioner Hamilton personally met with the senator"— after the May end of the legislative session, he said — "for the purposes of opening lines of communications and to make sure that the senator has access to any information he feels is useful or of interest to him. ... We intend to continue those efforts."
Meyer said he and Harris had both talked at length with Milstein about her new report, and she agrees the legislative inquiry is worthwhile.
Milstein called it "a very good idea to have hearings. I think we need more accountability from the department. It's a billion-dollar agency."
DCF has said it is wrong to compare the cost per child at Riverview with the lower figures at private facilities such as the Institute of Living or Yale-New Haven Hospital because the state hospital receives patients with more challenging problems than those institutions. Milstein disputes that.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal also decried Riverview's costs, saying "there needs to be a complete overhaul, with intensive oversight, to redo the way this institution is managed in almost every aspect. … If it isn't done administratively, it will have to be compelled legislatively."
Contact Jon Lender at email@example.com.
Link -- State Legislators Plan Investigation Of DCF -- Courant.com