Katz pledges to limit placement of children in group homes

The state Department of Children and Families has for years relied on congregate facilities to house abused and neglected children — but the new commissioner is backing an initiative that would place restrictions on putting its youngest children at such facilities.

“It really is the best thing to do,” said Commissioner Joette Katz.

On any given day, advocates report 25 children under age 6 are living in large group settings, which have rotating staff, and many are stuck there for months before moving in with a family.

“The problem is, once the infants get there they stay there for too long. This congregate care option has really become the fall back placement,” said Sarah Eagan, a lawyer with the Center for Children’s Advocacy who frequently represents infants and toddlers lingering in large group homes. “We all agree this is not the appropriate placement for such young children. We need to stop.”

Reducing placement in congregate care is one of the goals in the 1991 consent decree that came out of a federal class-action lawsuit filed by children’s advocates. According to a report released Monday by the federal court monitor tracking the state’s progress, one-quarter of the 4,600 children in state custody live in congregate, non-family settings — the same proportion as in August 2008.

Earlier this month, the Select Committee on Children overwhelmingly approved and sent to the Human Services Committee a bill that would severely restrict DCF’s ability to place children younger than 6 in congregate care.

But after Katz said that she has no intention of placing such young children in these facilities unless medically necessary, committee leadership on the Human Services decided to table the proposal.

“I think the number of young children living in these places does need to be lower, and the commissioner has said she will do that. I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt in the short term,” said Sen. Anthony J. Musto, D-Trumbull and co-chairman of the Human Services Committee.

Terry Edelstein, president of the Community Providers Association which represents numerous group homes across the state, said sometimes groups homes are an appropriate placement for an infant or child.

“You really have to look at the setting and each child’s needs individually. They may benefit from being in a group home,” she said. “These places are working very hard to make sure they are providing age appropriate care.”

Katz agreed that congregate home placement may be the best place for some children with very specialized needs, but family and foster placement remains her preference.

In order to reduce the number of young children in congregate care, Katz said the agency must increase the number of foster families and placement of children with relatives, which she has already taken several steps to accomplish. The court monitor reports that 15.4 percent of children in state custody were placed with relatives in January.

“It’s all part of a continuum,” she said.

Officials at DCF agreed almost three years ago to increase the number of foster care providers by 850 to relieve dependence on these congregate care facilities, but the court monitor reported Monday the state actually lost 116 foster homes since then.

Katz said increasing the number of foster parents and relative placements will do a lot to solve the troubled agency’s problems — including bringing children home from out-of-state.

While Katz said she supports the restrictions lawmakers have indicated are necessary for placing infant and toddlers in group homes, she is not supportive of legislators placing a moratorium on placing children out-of-state.

“Many of them I would like to see stay where they are, frankly,” she told members of the Human Services Committee Tuesday. She said 357 children currently live out of state — 79 percent in neighboring New England states. For children with autism or problem behavior involving arson, aggression or sexual activity, out-of-state facilities often are the most appropriate.

“It’s not about just having the beds. It’s about getting them in the right facilities,” she said.

The Human Services Committee did unanimously approve a bill Tuesday that would limit DCF from sending children out-of-state unless it is for specialized treatment that is not available in Connecticut or is in close proximity. All other children would need to be brought home by July 2013 and DCF would be required to report annually on the number of children living out-of-state and for what reasons.

Katz said absent a major increase in foster or family placements or increased use of the state-run institutions, DCF would have a difficult time not using out-of-state facilities.

“If someone were to say to me I have to have all these children brought home right now, it would be a disaster. It would be a disaster,” she said.