The state Department of Children and Families, which has been criticized for failing to place children removed from their homes with relatives, has started to reverse the trend, according to figures released Monday.
Four months ago, just 14 percent of the state’s 4,700 foster children lived with relatives. That figure has increased to 17 percent, according to numbers reported to a statewide panel of relatives, foster parents and providers Monday. That change means 140 more children were placed with family members rather than in congregate care facilities or with strangers in foster homes.
“That may not sound like a lot, but it is for those children,” DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said. “There has been this idea that the apple does not fall far from the tree and children should not be placed with family. Well, that is the wrong way of thinking.”
Those words prompted an immediate reaction from Sabra Mayo, a member of the State Advisory Panel who unsuccessfully fought for years to get her grandson placed with her rather than a series of foster homes.
“Thank God. It’s about time,” she said.
The numbers provided by DCF earlier this year show the agency’s record of placing children with family members has declined over the last decade. Ten years ago, one out of every four children was placed with a relative when it was determined they could not remain in their home, which was in line with the national rates. Today, just one in every six foster children is sent to live with a relative–one of the lowest rates in the nation.
The Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that while fewer percentages of children are being placed with family members over the last three fiscal years, the overall number of children in state custody to begin with significantly declined.
Katz, who said increasing placement with relatives was one of her priorities when she took office earlier this year, initiated several changes in DCF to move toward that goal.
To start, the agency has made it easier for relatives to be approved as foster parents. In the past, relatives were required to meet the same standards as strangers. Twice as many waivers of those rules were issued in the first four months of this year than were granted in all of last year.
One of those requirements–having a separate bedroom for each child–is what Mayo said prevented her from being able to get custody of her grandson. The rules also require that every bedroom have a window and bar relatives who may have old criminal convictions from taking in children.
But Fernando Muniz, chief of quality and planning for DCF, said that laundry list of requirements are not longer the final say, as they too often were before.
“If they have a conviction from 20 years ago and all the other evidence now signals they would be a good placement, then we will make that happen,” said Fernando Muniz, chief of quality and planning for DCF. “We’ve always had this waiver process but it was onerous and not heavily used.”
Following the presentation of the updated figures, Munique Reid, a foster child herself and the youth representative on the SAC, broke down in tears. Reid explained she has routinely seen her friends “get stuck in the system” and not allowed to live with relatives.
“It’s really ridiculous seeing all they’ve had to go through,” she said.
Katz, whose goal is to place half of all foster children with relatives, said not only are more children already remaining with their families, but she expects that number to continue to increase.
“We are really ramping up opportunities for families to keep their children,” she said.
And Reid hopes she’s right.
“I hope things do change. They really have to,” she said.