Progress report: DCF is moving children to more appropriate settings

When Department of Children and Families officials announced plans a year ago to send fewer abused and neglected children to live out of state, and to limit the number of those living in large group homes in Connecticut, advocates cautiously applauded the initiatives.

At the time, about 1,400 children lived in group settings, and shift workers were their guardians. This translated to about one of every four children in foster care, one of the highest rates in the country.

“How are these kids faring? There has been an urgent need for an answer,” said Ira Lustbader, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the longstanding lawsuit that led to federal court oversight of DCF.

“Specifically, what data exists to support their well-being?” echoed leaders of some of the state’s nonprofit facilities in a letter to the agency earlier this year.

The agency’s independent federal court monitor reported Thursday that the effort seems to be paying off, and that the diverted children are not being inappropriately placed or rushed out of group homes to boost DCF’s numbers.

“There is considerable evidence of collaborative case-planning in most cases. A very important factor for children’s needs being identified prior to discharge and subsequently met appeared to be solid partnership and alliance between the Department, providers, families and youth,” Raymond Mancuso reported.

Reducing placement in large group homes, or congregate care, is one of the goals included in the 1991 consent decree that came out of a federal class-action lawsuit.

The agency’s prescription to reduce reliance on group homes includes getting more relatives to take in their abused family member. When DCF Commissioner Joette Katz took office in January 2011, the department had one of the worst rates in the country in placing children with family members. She’s moved that rate from one in seven children being placed with family to one of every four children.

DCF has also reduced the number of children being removed from their homes for poverty-related issues, opting instead to get them the help they need.

“We are certainly impressed,” Lustbader said. “[DCF officials] have shored up placements to move these children living in congregate care to more appropriate living situations.”

But with 1,050 children still under the care of shift workers, advocates say the agency still has much work to do. The agency has routinely fallen short of the requirement that it add 850 new foster homes. The court monitor’s progress report says the agency has added a small number since last quarter, but it still has far to go.

“To reduce overreliance on congregate care, DCF must do a better job of attracting new foster parents and, perhaps even more significantly, retaining the foster parents it already has. The primary factor underlying DCF’s overreliance on congregate care is a shortage of licensed foster homes,” echoes a recent policy brief by New Haven-based Connecticut Voices for Children.

“Increasing the number of foster homes will help keep more sibling groups placed together, will ensure that more children can be close to their home communities, and may help increase rates of adoption from DCF care,” the advocacy group said.

The court monitor reported that when Katz took office, there were high rates of pregnancy among children leaving congregate care. In addition, in the months after they left, children were running away to be with their families or were repeatedly moved around to different facilities.

Mancuso reported that the shift away from large group home placements has not led to an increase in these instances.

“The department and other stakeholders have recognized the need to ensure that these reductions are not occurring in a manner that compromises the well-being of the children who are being discharged,” he wrote in the report.

Of the 409 children who have left congregate care facilities this year, the new homes of 18 percent did not work out, and they had to move. Before Katz took over the agency, that number was routinely 27 percent.

There are mixed results on whether children are receiving the services they need after leaving these group homes. While the children in most of the cases reviewed were getting general medical treatment, many were not receiving mental health and mentoring services.

For years, DCF has had problems providing children with these services. “While challenges do exist, these issues” are similar to those the agency routinely faces,” Mancuso wrote.