exposing the dark side of adoption
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The Hartford Courant

An infant's death by abuse is heart-rending. But the tragic nature of 7-month-old Michael Brown's death is compounded by an astonishing string of failures within the state Department of Children and Families.

Suzanne Listro has been charged with first-degree manslaughter in Michael's death. She was the baby's foster mother.

Ms. Listro is also a 15-year employee of DCF, most recently working as a children's services consultant.

To top it off, Ms. Listro was licensed as a foster parent in February despite having been the subject of two investigations of abuse involving her 3-year-old adopted son. The investigations, conducted by DCF, failed to substantiate the allegations. And while it's unclear whether the outcomes would have been different, DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton last week called those investigations "substandard and unacceptable."

DCF's mission is "to protect children, improve child and family well-being, and support and preserve families." It's a difficult mission because of the troubles some families face; some might say impossible.

But Michael Brown's death is a particularly stunning indictment. It lies at the center of concentric rings of failure starting with the agency's routine operations and moving up through the hierarchy until it shakes the agency's reason for being.

Commissioner Hamilton seems to understand this. She appears to be taking exhaustive steps to correct the real and potential flaws in the agency that are highlighted by Michael's case.

She's overhauling the investigations unit, disciplining employees and managers involved in Ms. Listro's case and requiring retraining in the proper conduct of investigations. She's making sure employees who license foster parents get access to all background information.

She has called for reviews of all recent investigations that concluded with unsubstantiated allegations or with recommendations that the cases be closed.

Ms. Hamilton has ordered reviews of all applications by DCF workers granted licenses as foster parents. She says she will have future applications by DCF staff reviewed independently by a private contractor. (Perhaps allegations involving staff members should be investigated independently as well.) She has also asked the Child Welfare League of America to review Michael's case for other systemic problems and solutions.

Last but not least, she's seeking Ms. Listro's termination.

Michael's death is a horrible story. Still, there would be some solace in knowing his case led to better protections for children in the future.

2008 Jul 23