Yes, There IS a Problem with the “Culture Change” in Connecticut: It Hasn’t Gone Far Enough

Connecticut, 1995: Emily Hernandez, a child-known-to-the-system, dies. Gov. John Rowland demands that caseworkers tear apart more families. There is a foster care panic, a huge increase in children torn from their families. Children continue to die.

Connecticut, 2003: Another child-known-to-the-system, Al-Lex Daniels, dies. Rowland sets off another foster-care panic. Children continue to die.

Connecticut, 2016: Another child-known-to-the-system, known in news accounts as Dylan, nearly dies, this time in the kinship foster home of a relative. But Connecticut does things differently now. The failings that led to the tragedy are identified, workers are disciplined, but there is no foster-care panic.

Connecticut has a different governor now (Rowland wound up in jail for corruption related to construction of a juvenile prison). As NCCPR discusses in detail in this report, the current governor, Dannel Malloy, and the Commissioner of his Department of Children and Families, Joette Katz, have brought a culture change to child welfare: They’re refusing to play politics with children’s lives.

As Katz told the Hartford Courant:

Historically, when DCF had a bad outcome, everything would change. The next week, 500 children would be removed. We don’t do that. We know that wasn’t good for the kids.

Less Foster Care, No Compromise of Safety

What is good for the kids is taking away fewer children. In 2009 the state took children at a rate more than 45 percent above the national average. By 2014, the rate of removal was down to the national average – though, sadly, still above the rate in states that are, relatively speaking, national models for keeping children safe.

In 2010, Connecticut used the worst form of “care” – group homes and institutions – at a rate more than 30 percent above the national average. Since then, institutionalization has declined by two-thirds.

In 2010, Connecticut used the least harmful form of foster care – kinship care – at a rate about 25 percent below the national average. Now it’s about 25 percent above the national average.

After all that, child safety improved according to the most reliable standard indicator, the rate at which children known-to-the-system are re-abused.

Of course for someone like Marie Cohen, who’s never met an orphanage she didn’t like and who even sang the praises of an institution after it was exposed as a hellhole, all this success is terribly upsetting.  So she has seized on a report by the state’s official “child advocate” to try to blame Connecticut’s reforms for the most recent tragedy.

After acknowledging that Katz is right when she says a single tragedy “should not be used to reverse needed policy changes,” Cohen proceeds to urge exactly that.

She cites weasel-worded claims from the child advocate’s report concerning how some documents “appear to reference…” this, some workers “seemed to be” that, and some events “raise the specter” of children being at risk.

But even the child advocate said the issue was failure to follow policy and ignorance of policy, not the policy itself.

A Heaping Helping of Innuendo

Cohen then piles her own innuendo on top of the child advocate’s innuendo, claiming workers might be placing children in unsafe kinship homes in order to please Katz and senior management.

But a key problem in Dylan’s case was the failure to obtain a waiver approving the home where the abuse allegedly took place. Precisely because of identified risk factors in that home, it falls into a category for which a waiver must be approved personally by Katz, a level of accountability almost unheard-of in child welfare.  Another key problem: One caseworker essentially bragged in an email about her laziness.

Ignorance, laziness, refusal to follow procedures, and failure to get the Commissioner’s personal permission when required seem like odd ways to suck up to the boss.

The larger problem is the fact that “child advocate” offices almost always operate in the same way – investigate the worst horror stories and draw sweeping conclusions.  The problems with this methodology should be obvious (and, in fact, a former child advocate in New Jersey found a better way).

The Connecticut child advocate actually missed the single biggest failure in Dylan’s case. Excellent reporting by The Day in New London makes clear that Dylan never needed to be taken from his own home, if only his mother had received the right kinds of help. The real problem with the culture change in Connecticut is that it hasn’t gone far enough.

If only there were a better way to evaluate child welfare systems. If only Connecticut had some fully independent authority; say, someone appointed by a court, who could review the entire system, examine representative cases and see if things really are getting better or worse, then we’d – oh, wait, Connecticut has such an authority.

Thanks to a consent decree that dates to 1989, an independent monitor performs comprehensive assessments of the system. For decades those assessments were dismal. But now, things have improved to the point that all sides have agreed to a streamlined decree that even the lawyer suing the state calls “a recognition of sustained progress by DCF in significant areas of its practice, particularly during this administration.” [Emphasis added.]

As long as Malloy and Katz refuse to cave in to the take-the-child-and-run crowd, the progress will continue.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).

3 Comments

  1. Although the Department has realized some improvements within its culture and policies, practices are slow to shift across such a vast workforse and it remains bound by state budget cuts and cost containment measures. It is also guided by maximizing the flow of uncapped federal foster care funding triggered by kids entering custody and increased system adoptions. Where the Department continues to operate in the dark ages is in its role as a child serving system leader.

    Children with psychiatric conditions and emotional/behavioral instabilities, both organic and adverse environmental exposure-rooted, and their nurturing desperate-to-heal-them parents, continue to lose. They lose their kids to state custody by way of neglect petitions despite the absence of abuse or neglect. Parents are portrayed to the court as presenting safety concerns and kids are simply taken. On this front, tearing families apart remains a preferred response as the cost of psychiatric care is too great and foster care costs are subsidized. Presenting these parents to the court as incompetent and restricting access to condition specific treatment options viewed as appropriate by parents and engaged providers, does harm to the whole family and the “sick” child today and across their lifespan. So, on this front, I see no progress.

    DCF’s Voluntary Services was originally formed as a means to voluntarily “give up” a child; a child that is too sick, to dangerous to care for. Today, it is touted as a program that provides access to a higher level of behavioral health care and services. But, in my experiences, it is a program that is dangerously underfunded, embodies a lack of serving system culture and skills, and denies far more families than it serves. And it still takes kids into custody to access care with some being forced to lose parental rights all together. Intensive treatment costs more than foster care. Consequently, many of those who are denied VS end up involved in the clutches of a still improving child protection guided system. The improvements to CT’s child serving system can’t come soon enough for these families as too many sick, broken children with loving parents have already been lost to our states foster system, their illnesses and death. Twenty-first century answers should be attainable in the twenty-first century.

    • Ms. Davis makes a very good point. As I note in NCCPR’s full Update on Connecticut child welfare(http://bit.ly/2fanbIX):

      The Connecticut Health I-Team (C-HIT) released an important in-depth story (http://bit.ly/2dYmVYW) about a serious and real problem at child welfare agencies across the country: parents forced to give up custody of their children in order to get them mental health care. …

      There is no excuse for requiring parents to trade custody for care. The savings achieved by DCF through reducing what is both the worst and the most expensive form of care, institutionalization, should not become some kind of general interest slush fund to fill holes in the state budget. The funds should be directed right back into child welfare services, including the intensive help these
      children need.

      But that help does not automatically have to mean institutionalization. There is nothing a so-called “residential treatment center” can do that can’t be done, far better, with truly intensive home-based “wraparound” services. …

      But the help has to be real and it has to be intense. It can’t be a “counselor” dropping by a couple of times a week.

  2. With all due respect, if you’re not working in CT in the system, it’s not reasonable for you to know what Katz and other DCF folks are communicating to providers, parents, kids, and others. They _don’t_ want kids in congregate care settings and will do anything to keep them out of there. They overlook that sometimes, a blood relative might be the _worst_ place for a child to be sent. (See: Dylan.) And that waiver you praise? It’s well-known in DCF that you’d better not submit one–figure out another way. So it all sounds great, except what’s lost here is: WHAT IS BEST FOR THE CHILD? That’s all we as citizens want…figure out, case by case, what’s best for each child. And sometimes, especially for an older child who’s experienced a tremendous about of trauma in his life and will _never_ be adopted, and has no competent relatives, the setting he needs is a small setting where he’ll learn the skills (and experience some safety and consistency, for once) he needs to be an independent, happy adult.

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