Despite a much-touted effort to recruit more foster parents, a new report by the federal court monitor overseeing the state Department of Children and Families says the agency lost a total of 300 foster homes during the third quarter of this year.
“That’s disturbing,” said Jeanne Milstein, the state’s child advocate. “Things are continuing to deteriorate even further over there.
DCF has been under court supervision for almost 20 years following a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of “Juan F” and other children in state custody. Among other things, the agency is required to reduce the number of children placed in group settings by increasing the number of foster homes.
Two years ago, DCF agreed to add 850 foster family homes by July of this year to reduce the state’s dependence on large group homes. Since then, DCF has added just 42 new homes, and 20 percent children in state custody live in congregate care facilities.
“This has just not been a priority and this is a critical problem facing the agency,” said Ira Lustbader, a lawyer for Children’s Rights representing the plaintiffs.
Gary Kleeblatt, spokesman for DCF, said losing 300 foster homes in three months is not necessarily a problem. He said children in those foster homes left because they were adopted or they returned to their families.
“These foster parents told the department, ‘It has been great, but I am no longer going to provide [a home] for foster care children,’” he said. “We say to them, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to be a foster parent?’ If they say no we can’t make them.”
But advocates say losing that many foster parents in such a short amount of time “is unheard of.”
“We are recruiting with the left hand and losing foster parents with the right,” said Martha Stone, one of the lawyers behind the Juan F. lawsuit. “I am really disturbed that this many foster homes are being lost.”
Lustbader and Stone say the decline is directly attributable to how foster parents are treated by DCF.
“Sometimes they can’t even get a call back. The support system is just not always there,” Lustbader said.
According to a DCF-commissioned focus group conducted by the University of Connecticut Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, foster parent participants “consistently felt that the DCF staff were disrespectful and non-supportive, and generally held a negative view of the foster parents.”
This significant decline comes just months after DCF launched a “We All Have Love to Give” campaign to recruit new foster families. The strategy was to focus on demographic groups that have produced the most successful foster placements, including families of color, people over 40 years old, and households concentrated along the I-84 and I-91 corridors between Hartford west to Waterbury and south to New Haven.
Kleeblatt said that campaign is beginning to produce results but the need remains for a major influx of foster parents.
“There’s no question that we need more homes. It’s a focus of a lot of work. The numbers now are not something we are satisfied with,” he said.
Gov.-elect Dan Malloy has said DCF needs a complete overhaul, and much of the problems at the troubled $867 million agency could be solved by fixing shortages in foster care.
State Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz said last month when Malloy selected her to run DCF that more focus needs to be put into recruiting and retaining foster parents. She also said she intends to reduce the number of children that need to be put into foster care in the first place.
Lustbater hopes she lives up to these promises.
“Something has to change… We haven’t had someone that has been willing to own up to these problems… Too much time has been wasted trying to run away from the court order than fixing things.”