HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — For more than 30 years, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) has been operating under the watchful eye of a court monitor. Now, there is a big change for the state agency.

State officials and a national children’s rights group celebrated a landmark settlement Thursday that frees the state from court oversight.

“Today marks a time where we will no longer have federal oversight. But the work has just begun,” said DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes.

The oversight was part of a consent decree resulting from a class-action lawsuit brought in 1989. The suit charged that the old state department of children and youth services was failing to provide necessary services for children who had been abused or neglected and for youth at risk.

A hearing was held in Bridgeport federal court Thursday morning. The judge ruled DCF has met and sustained all of the benchmarks, including the following:

  • By law starting investigations of alleged abuse or neglect quickly
  • Finding relatives to care for children removed from parents’ custody
  • Maintaining caseload limits
  • Minimizing the use of institutional settings
  • Providing community-based mental health services
  • Embedding a racial justice focus

When this case started, 300 children were in out-of-state placements. As of Thursday, there are five. This is an example of the dynamic shift in how child protective services meets the needs of families.

In the early 1990s, there was a wide belief that the former child and youth services were grossly underfunded, which contributed to failures, and at-risk kids were not protected.

“Being subjected to dangerous conditions within foster care in the agency, being bounced around from one place to another, never knowing what their next home was going to be like, being shipped out of state unnecessarily, being put in congregate care,” said Ira Lustbader, director of litigation at Children’s Rights, a nonprofit fighting for children around the nation.

The consent decree attacked the broken system, calling for a number of reforms. A court monitor overseeing all of it.

Now commissioner of the new Department of Children and Families, Dorantes was a young social worker overwhelmed by more than 50 cases. She said investigators now have less than 17.

“Recognizing the ratio between excellent quality work and the number of families that you are responsible for, I think is one of the most obvious and glaring examples of how this has structurally changed who we are,” Dorantes said.

Dee Bonnick is a national family engagement consultant who helped work on this plan as a parent leader.

“The work that we do in child welfare, in general, is transformational work, and the only way that happens is when you engage the community and you bring them along in partnership and shared leadership.”

Seven commissioners and four governors later, Governor Ned Lamont acknowledges the agency is in a very different place.

The federal case named Juan F. is now closed. Juan F., one of the plaintiffs, is now in his forties living in Connecticut.