Activists allege racism in Connecticut child welfare agency

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Taking advantage of a short reprieve from a rainstorm, Rev. Cornell Lewis and one of his followers don bright yellow jackets and trek to one of the poorest sections of Connecticut’s capital city to slide white sheets of paper into doors and mailboxes.

The Saturday morning ritual has been going on for the past month in Hartford’s North End, where Lewis’ group “The Men of Color,” block by block, is trying to persuade residents of this economically depressed, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood to refuse services from the state’s child welfare agency.

They’re attempting to create “A No-DCF Zone,” referring to the Department of Children and Families, to draw attention to what they say is a lack of minority input into a state agency whose clientele are more often black and Hispanic than not.

“They don’t look like us. And we’ve brought issues of racism to them and they don’t listen,” Lewis, who is black, tells Curtis Strickland, a North End resident. “If DCF comes in this neighborhood, we want people to tell them, ‘Hey man, you don’t listen to us. You don’t respect us, therefore, you know, we don’t want your services.’”

Strickland tells Lewis he’ll do what he can to spread the word.

“I don’t think they’d be doing this for nothing if something ain’t right,” he tells a reporter.

It’s unclear how many families will ultimately refuse DCF case workers in their homes. Lewis, who met with representatives of Gov. M. Jodi Rell administration on Thursday to discuss his group’s concerns, said they plan to continue to go door-to-door until some concrete changes are made at DCF.

DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton said she is concerned there is “a collective effort to interfere” with some of the child protection functions of DCF.

While families are not required to cooperate with a DCF investigation, typically prompted by a tip about alleged abuse or neglect, Hamilton said the agency might have to take the adversarial step of seeking a court order against a particular family in order to complete an investigation if the “No-DCF Zone” protest persists.

“I find it unfortunate because oftentimes we’re able to intervene families in a cooperative way to get them what they need so that they’re children at not at risk and they don’t have to enter foster care,” she said. “I think it’s doing a disservice, frankly, to the families of that community.”

Hamilton, who is white, said she’s also concerned there is a perception that her agency, which she has run since 2007, is not racially sensitive. She said issues surrounding the race and ethnicity of DCF employees and clients are taken very seriously.

DCF has among the highest rates of minority hiring in state government. Statistics from 2008 show 47 percent of its 3,400 employees are minorities, including 30 percent of managers. According to U.S. Census estimates for 2008, more than 84 percent of Connecticut’s population of 3.5 million are Caucasian.

“I somewhat question where they’re getting the data in terms of there not being enough diversity at upper levels because I don’t think the numbers reflect that,” Hamilton said. “That’s a concern that I have because if there’s a perception out there that we’re not diverse simply because the commissioner doesn’t fall into one of those categories.”

Despite the employee makeup of the agency, the Men of Color and other groups said they are not satisfied and question the amount of input those minority workers actually have at the agency.

“If you don’t have diversity at the top, you don’t have the cultural competency to deal with the issues that are going on,” said Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP.

Hamilton maintains that all members of her executive team are valued and fully involved in decision-making at DCF.

The state’s NAACP chapter was expected to pass a resolution at its annual convention over the weekend, calling for an outside investigation into DCF and whether minority children are actually benefiting from the hundreds of millions of dollars the state spends on child welfare services. The majority of children under DCF supervision are minorities.

At the same time, DCF is facing complaints of disparate punishment of minority workers at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown, a DCF facility for troubled youth where Lewis is employed.

“It’s worse than in the South,” said Anthony Gaunichaux of Middletown, a past employee at CJTS, who joined Lewis at Thursday’s meeting with the governor’s office. “I’ve got cases right here, I’ve got cases of people that have been unjustly treated at CJTS and they’re all black males.”

Hamilton said her agency has not seen evidence of disproportionate discipline based on ethnicity or race. She said there are avenues where employees can make discrimination complaints and that a very small percentage of cases are found to have merit.

“I think we do a very good job, frankly, at trying to be as consistent and as objective as we can in all the decisions that we make, particularly around discipline and hiring,” she said. “When we hear that there are concerns about that it’s something we take very seriously.”

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