Has Connecticut’s Cultural Change Gone Too Far?

I read with interest Joette Katz’ column about her efforts to change the culture of child welfare in Connecticut. Ms. Katz, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF), reports with pride that due to this cultural change, Connecticut has more than doubled foster care placements with relatives in less than two years.

Opinion_Feature_ImageThe self-congratulatory tone of Ms. Katz’ column is surprising in light of a recent near-tragedy in Connecticut. A 19-month-old boy almost died of malnutrition and abuse after being placed for nearly five months with relatives who were completely unfit to care for a vulnerable child.

I don’t have the space to narrate the entire story of “Dylan C.’s” five months of suffering. Interested readers can access the meticulously researched and scathing report from Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate (OCA). Suffice to say, DCF decided to place Dylan with a cousin of his mother and her husband despite numerous red flags. These included multiple prior allegations of abuse and neglect, a criminal history including a conviction for assault, “health issues,” and “indefinitely suspended” drivers’ licenses for both parents.

Dylan had “global developmental delays” by the time he came into foster care at the age of 13 months. But during the five months that he lived with the Magee family, Dylan did not see a pediatrician and missed multiple appointments with his early intervention provider, according to the OCA report.

By the time he was removed from this deadly foster home at the age of 19 months, Dylan weighed only 17 pounds, less than he weighed seven months before. He was unable to walk, talk or feed himself. He had broken bones in both arms, several weeks old. He had a burn on his wrist, torn tissue under his tongue, and multiple bruises and abrasions. Doctors also found evidence of a retinal hemorrhage and “old bleeding” in his brain that they deemed to be a result of trauma.

OCA found that a dozen employees in four different units failed to ensure Dylan’s safety and well-being in foster care. Dylan was not seen awake by his caseworker for 102 days. For five months, the CPS unit did not address repeated red flags, including a report that Ms. Magee called the police to ask if she could get in trouble for letting Dylan cry for long periods of time.

In a column published in a Connecticut newspaper, Ms. Katz argued that a tragic outcome in a single case should not be used to reverse needed policy changes. She is right. But according to OCA, the problem is not a misguided policy. Rather, it is a set of practices that appear to be inconsistent with policy and that may be widespread.

Documents from DCF’s own internal investigation obtained by OCA “appear to reference widespread regional practices associated with the approval of relative foster homes that are inconsistent with state law and regulations.” Many employees seemed to be unaware that a waiver was required to place a child in the home of a foster parent with a criminal or child abuse history. Equally disconcerting, employees “gave various answers regarding who is ultimately responsible for assessing the licenseability and suitability of a relative foster parent.”

OCA summed up, “The interview responses depict incoherent, ill-informed and chaotic decision-making regarding what can be life and death situations for children. The responses raise the specter of numerous children who have been placed in foster homes without appropriate assessments, checks or balances to ensure their safety.”

My own reading of the OCA report raises concern about whether Ms. Katz’ vaunted change in agency climate might be contributing to the decision to place children in the homes of unqualified relatives without the most basic screening and review. In one chilling e-mail, a supervisor indicated her reluctance to place Dylan’s newborn sister in “another marginal relative resource in this family.”

The supervisor went on to state that the licensing unit was “constantly sharing concerns with us about [other relatives in this family] but when we try to act on them we’re told it’s not that bad and there’s not enough to deny or remove.” Despite these concerns, the newborn was placed in this home, joining her sister who was already there.

Through my own work in child welfare, I have learned that when agency leadership has a new agenda, middle management and workers quickly realign their priorities. Supervisors and administrators know that they are not going to rise in the hierarchy by proposing increased scrutiny of relatives. After all, how else did DCF more than double foster care placements with relatives in less than two years?

Is it possible that staff are motivated to cut corners in order to give top management what they want? Apparently Ms. Katz is not concerned. But maybe she needs to be.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at fosteringreform.blogspot.org, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.