Monday, March 7, 2011

Foster care in Connecticut: Will you-know-who undermine real reform?

Connecticut is the great underachiever in child welfare.  Year after year, the state spends on child welfare at one of the highest rates in the country, and year after year the system produces lousy results for kids.

That’s because Connecticut spends the money in all the wrong ways.  First of all, as is discussed in detail in our report on Connecticut child welfare, the state takes away children at a rate 40 percent above the national average and more than double the rates in states widely-recognized as, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe.

The problem is compounded by what happens after children are taken away.  Connecticut uses the worst form of care (and the most expensive), group homes and institutions, at one of the highest rates in the nation.  At the same time, it uses the least harmful form of substitute care, placing children with relatives instead of strangers, at one of the lowest rates.  Details are in NCCPR’s interactive database.

Now, the new Commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, Joette Katz, is promising to change at least part of that – the part about kinship care.  And it’s clear she understands exactly what’s causing the problem.  According to a story from the non-profit news website Connecticut Mirror:
Katz blames the long list of agency regulations and requirements for families to take in a relative, which are identical to the requirements strangers have when fostering these children.

"I am not sure our rules make sense in every case. There's this catch-all. If Great Aunt Sally doesn't meet one requirement then that automatically eliminates her," said Katz. "Instead, we should be asking ourselves, 'Is this is something we can work around?' We need to start taking educated risks with the goal of keeping kids with relatives."

This long list of requirements ranges from ensuring that homes have working lights and heat to insisting on separate beds for same-sex relatives and separate bedrooms for opposite-sex relatives. Not all of them make sense when the issue is keeping children with their families, she says.

"It's punishing people for poverty. Lot's of people share bedrooms and they are fine," Katz said. "I am telling my [social] workers to start making more exceptions when they believe it makes sense, effective immediately... I will back their decisions."

Who in the word could be against that?  Who would be so obtuse – and so heartless – as to punish people for their poverty by insisting that grandparents comply with every single regulation used to license middle-class strangers, regulations often geared more to middle-class creature comforts than actual health and safety?

Quite possibly the same people who have had a consent decree in Connecticut for more than two decades – that’s who.

Yes, Katz may face a fight from Marcia Lowry and her minions at the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights.  After all, CR is taking Michigan in precisely the opposite direction from where Katz wants Connecticut to go.  Under the consent decree CR foisted on Michigan, with rare and difficult-to-get exceptions, impoverished relatives have to comply with all the same hypertechnical licensing requirements as middle-class strangers.

The entirely-predictable result: At least 1,500 children have been kicked out of the homes of extended family members providing kinship care in Michigan – and no one is keeping track of what happened to them.

It’s happening because CR believes there is no problem in child welfare that can’t be solved with another form, another procedure or another bureaucratic requirement.  The people at CR are like the clerk you least want to see when you finally make it to the front of the line at the DMV.

So in her effort to finally do what’s best for Connecticut’s vulnerable children, Joette Katz may have quite a fight on her hands.  But my guess is Katz is up to it.  She is one of two justices on state supreme courts to leave those jobs this year to run state human services agencies.  The other is Maura Corrigan – in Michigan.  Perhaps Katz’s example will encourage Corrigan to put up a fight as well.