Of all the failures of our systems that led to the death from malnutrition of Matthew Tirado, a nonverbal autistic boy from Hartford, the judicial hearing held in December 2016 is what sticks with me. The Department of Children and Families argued to close Matthew’s case, without providing any evidence for why, and the judge agreed. The hearing took less than a minute. Two months later, Matthew was dead.
This week the Office of the Child Advocate, an essential watchdog agency that reviews cases like this, released its report on Matthew. It’s a hard read; Matthew and his younger sister suffered years of abuse. It culminated in their mother locking cabinets so Matthew couldn’t eat — she claimed he would eat until he made himself sick. He was forced to eat oil and ketchup and what he could find in the garbage, getting worse and worse until his reluctant mother, who knew he was starving, finally called for medical help. It was too late. Matthew died two hours later.
All the systems set up to protect him failed Matthew on so many levels. He didn’t attend school regularly, attending less than 100 days over the course of several years and not at all from January 2016 until he died a year later. Oak Hill, the private school Matthew was enrolled at, expressed concerns to DCF, but there was little to no follow-up on DCF’s part and the school didn’t bring their concerns to a higher level. DCF itself was unaware of pertinent facts in the case, such as Matthew’s mother and grandmother having a long history with DCF and prior reports by Matthew’s sister that their mother hit her. Judges in the Juvenile Court system missed warning signs and allowed DCF to proceed with closing the case, without asking for documentation and evidence.
But all of us failed him, in some way. This is our state, and our government. We let this happen because we’re willing to live with DCF, urban schools, juvenile courts, and other services for children being constantly underfunded and overstretched.
Worse, we ignore disabled children like Matthew, who couldn’t advocate for himself. As the OCA report says, children with disabilities are at greater risk of abuse and neglect than non-disabled children. Studies suggest that the same is true for autistic children specifically.
The Child Advocate’s report is damning in many respects, but has a particularly harsh judgment of DCF. Oak Hill complained that communicating with the notoriously opaque agency was a “one-way street,” and that it felt like “calling a black hole.” It was DCF who wanted the case closed, DCF who didn’t connect important information about the family to the case, and DCF who didn’t bother getting a court order to allow social workers to enter more of Matthew’s home.
There are good reasons for some of this. DCF has a woefully outdated and clunky computer database, and it’s hard for case workers to actually find what they need. The legislature underfunds DCF, to the point where case workers’ caseloads are beyond what national standards suggest. The state’s financial crisis has hardly helped, and DCF’s attempts to shield itself from budget cuts have not been successful.
It’s also true that DCF has made some progress over the years, and is a somewhat better agency than it was.
It’s not enough. DCF has been under federal supervision for decades, thanks to a landmark case currently known as Juan F. vs. Malloy. The latest findings say that in a few crucial areas, including permanency and mental health services, DCF is still not adequately meeting the needs of the children it serves.
DCF also is one of the least transparent agencies in the state. It is very difficult to get any sort of information out of them, and they tend to be very defensive when pressed. This is especially true of the agency’s longtime commissioner, Joette Katz, who consistently deflects blame from DCF whenever tragic situations like this one happen. DCF’s own internal report on Matthew’s case reads more like a rebuttal to the Office of the Child Advocate’s report than a serious self-reflection, and that in and of itself is a problem.
At this point it’s clear that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will stand by his commissioner no matter what. That’s unfortunate. DCF needs to be more transparent, more reflective, and more open to real reform. Under Katz that won’t happen; there is precious little evidence of DCF becoming less closed off and defensive during the time she’s been there.
So we’ll have wait until the next administration. For some children, though, that may be too late.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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