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The children who enter the care of the state, overseen by the Department of Children and Families, are our most vulnerable children, and yet there are state workers who are allowed to continue to work with them even after allegations of abuse.

This is wrong. Any state employee involved in a substantiated case of abuse should be fired. There should be zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.

But, as Jeb Bush noted in a recent speech, “There are a lot of exemplary employees in the . . . government, but they’re treated no better than the bad ones,” he said. “And the bad ones are almost impossible to effectively discipline or remove.”

This week, as lawmakers have begun to look at the shocking report issued by the state’s child advocate about reports of state workers physically and verbally abusing children at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) and the Pueblo Girls Program, there was no mention of firing anyone.

Why not? Maybe for the same reason New York City still is paying teachers who sexually abused students. Or the same reason police departments in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh . . . and on and on, have not fired police officers who assaulted or abused family members, co-workers, or members of the public.

It’s called “arbitration,” and it is a benign word for a serious problem in public sector management.

When a unionized public employee is disciplined, or fired, the union swoops in to protect him or her, and in the end an “arbitrator” gets to decide the employee’s fate.

Examples of what happens after arbitration are telling — from an article in The Atlantic about unions and bad cops:

“Hector Jimenez is one Oakland policeman who was fired and reinstated. In 2007, he shot and killed an unarmed 20-year-old man. Just seven months later, he killed another unarmed man, shooting him three times in the back as he ran away. Oakland paid a $650,000 settlement to the dead man’s family in a lawsuit and fired Jimenez, who appealed through his police union. Despite killing two unarmed men and costing taxpayers all that money, he was reinstated and given back pay.”

Or the case of a union contract (now expired) for teachers in Michigan that said teachers could come to work drunk five times before they could be fired, and it would require a second offense for a teacher to be fired for distributing drugs or alcohol to students in class. Under that contract a first offense would have gotten them a three-day suspension without pay.

After Matthew Lang, a teacher in Illinois, was caught in a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student, he resigned. A union rep wrote a letter to the school board asking that the reason for his firing be kept out of his file. He went on to work in another school district and was eventually arrested for having a sexual relationship with a student there.

Here in Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy promised the “harshest penalties” for state workers who stole from the food stamp program after Tropical Storm Irene. In the end only four state employees out of 200 were fired, according to the Courant.

What all of these examples point to is how public sector unions hamper the ability of managers — whether it’s a police commissioner, a school principal, or the head of the training school — to really manage their employees.

Yes, these cases of extreme bad behavior are few and far between. Most DCF employees, most police officers, and certainly most teachers, would never behave in this way.

But why do most unionized public employees stay silent in the face of a system that keeps in place employees who have done destructive and indefensible things?

The DCF’s response has been clinical and sanitized. They say they are already addressing the problems outlined in the child advocate’s report, as well as a report written by an expert at the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice.

Promising more staff training, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said: “We will need more to create the therapeutic and rehabilitative system that youth need to recover from adversities and achieve success.” Whatever that means.

A few weeks ago Katz wrote about the Second Chance initiative in an op-ed. I too believe in second chances — but I do not believe a person should be given a second chance to abuse a child.

From Susan Bigelow’s CTNewsJunkie op-ed a few weeks ago: “A long time ago I spoke with someone who had worked at a DCF facility, and I asked him about what the biggest problem he had to deal with there was. He looked at me, eyes heavy, and said: ‘The staff’.”

It must be incredibly difficult to work with these teens. Many of them have been through hell to get where they are, and they likely take it out on the staff. In this kind of unstable environment, it becomes all the more necessary to have people who can handle the weight of the job without lashing out. 

And still. If we know that children are being abused in state custody, then something must be done about it. Any member of the DCF’s staff who hurts a child, whether physically or emotionally, should be fired.

And if that happens, then hopefully their union won’t stand in the way.

Suzanne Bates is the policy director for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. She lives in South Windsor with her family. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.

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