Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Connecticut and CR are back in court over foster care. They’re both wrong.


UPDATE, SEPT. 22: The judge has ruled that DCF will not be let out of the consent decree.  Of the only two options on the table at the moment, that definitely was the one that's less bad.

In 1991, three state child  welfare systems signed consent decrees with the states that were suing them.  Two of those decrees, in Alabama and Illinois, helped transform their states into, relatively speaking, national models.  The third decree, in Connecticut, accomplished very little.

                The reason will come as no surprise to any regular reader of this Blog.  The Alabama suit focused on rebuilding that state’s system to emphasize family preservation. The Illinois suit ultimately did the same.  But the Connecticut suit was brought by the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR) – and we all know what that means.

                Connecticut is a state which, year after year, takes away children at a rate well above the national average, (and, at the moment, double the rates in Illinois and Alabama).  It is a state so fanatical about taking away children that at least three times judges have blasted the state child welfare agency for deliberately misrepresenting cases in order get the courts to rubber-stamp removals.  It is a state which has had at least two devastating foster-care panics since 1995 and may be on the verge of another.

Yet CR’s consent decree does nothing to force the state Department of Children and Families to stop taking away so many children needlessly.  That guarantees a system that always will be overloaded, a system where none of the other serious problems will be fixed. 

                Money isn’t the problem.  Connecticut spends on child welfare at one of the highest rates in the nation, a rate more than triple the national average.  But it throws vast amounts of money away on needless foster care, and on the worst, and most expensive, option of all, group homes and institutions.  Connecticut also ships hundreds of children to out-of-state institutions at a rate which, while not as atrocious as Rhode Island, still is horrendous.


Tomorrow, Connecticut DCF and CR are scheduled to be back in U.S. District Court fighting over the consent decree.  DCF says they’ve made such magnificent progress implementing the decree that they should be let out of it.  CR says the agency still is so wretched that it should remain under the latest version of a decree that dates back nearly two decades.

                They’re both wrong.

                DCF does indeed remain a child welfare agency that does so much harm to the children in its care that some kind of court oversight is essential.  But DCF won’t change as long as the consent decree ignores the elephant in the room.

                What’s urgently needed is a new consent decree – one that is focused on getting DCF to stop taking away so many children needlessly.

                All this is illustrated by a “friend of the court” brief filed by the Center for Children’s Advocacy (CCA) at the University of Connecticut Law School and posted on the Ct. Mirror news website.

                The brief combines data showing that, when it comes to things like institutionalizing children and shipping them out of state, DCF’s performance actually is getting worse, with heart-rending case examples like this one:

                "Maybe if you put my picture on flyers and post them on telephone poles, someone might see it, and decide they want me and will take me home," says Michael …  Kind and generous and  engaging and curious-all words to describe this eight-year-old little boy who sits at a SAFE Home - a group home for young children- waiting and waiting and waiting for a family to take him home.
Michael first became the victim of abuse at the hands of his parent. After his mom's rights were taken away, Michael was placed in at least two different foster homes, split from his other 6 siblings. When DCF finally found the "home" Michael so desperately wanted, and the agency placed him in this adoptive home, his adopted dad sexually abused him and Michael found himself for a second time removed from his "family" and waiting for someone to provide him with the nurturing home he longs for.  
After months at the SAFE Home, anxiously waking up every day wanting to know if DCF had found another family, this time a "safe" one, DCF finally came through and placed him in a therapeutic foster home. But when Michael's behaviors became too much for them to take, they gave him back, "returned" him to DCF, like he was a piece of clothing to take back to the store.
And so as of the filing of this amicus brief, Michael sits at the SAFE Home once again looking and waiting for that one person in this state who will call Michael his son.

                But the brief also illustrates why the current consent decree is doomed to fail.  Over and over again, the authors offer only one alternative to the current  mess in Connecticut: Recruit more foster homes.  But no child welfare system in America ever has fixed itself simply by adding more foster homes.  In Connecticut, as in most systems, the problem isn’t too few foster parents, the problem is too many foster children.  (The case of Michael illustrates part of the problem.  His adoptive home was abusive and his foster home gave up on him.)

                But even if CCA believed that the real heart of the problem is that Connecticut takes away too many children, they couldn’t say it in their brief.  Because it CCA said that DCF needed to stop taking away so many children, DCF would immediately respond that no one has the right even to mention that issue in court -  because it’s not in the consent decree.  So all sides have a vested interest in pretending the elephant in the room isn’t there.


            The brief also reinforces the false stereotypes about families that poison the child welfare debate.

The case examples feature only brutally abused children, even though they represent a small fraction of the cases seen by DCF workers.

All children in the system are referred to as “abused and neglected” children “already traumatized by abuse, neglect and removal from the parent or guardian…”  This is wrong as a matter of fact and law.  Some children are in foster care for months before a court ever decides if there was any maltreatment at all.  And for some children, they only trauma they suffered was the trauma of removal.

Perhaps most disturbing, in discussing the problems of children who “age out” of the system at 18, the brief quotes a DCF document stating that the outcomes for these children may be “homelessness, arrests, hospitalization, [emergency room] visits, or return to the families from which they were removed.”  CCA then refers to all of these outcomes, equally, as “tragedies.”

Connecticut needs a whole new approach. 

For starters, the state’s elected officials and DCF need to take steps to ensure the state doesn’t endure still another foster-care panic, in the wake of a high-profile case in Torrington.  Such panics plunged the system into chaos in 1995 and 2003 – the first time with what amounted to an endorsement of the panic from CR’s founder and director, Marcia Lowry.

 Then the state needs to sit down with CR and radically reform the consent decree.  What gets measured gets done – and right now efforts to curb entries into care aren’t even measured.  Illinois is successful because the two sides realized their original consent decree wasn’t working and they came up with something better.

In 2011, Connecticut will have a new governor and, almost certainly, a new DCF commissioner.  That would be a great time to sit down with CR and start over.