When Sabra Mayo heard a knock on her door last summer, the last person she was expecting to be there was the grandson she’d seen just a handful of times since the state Department of Children and Families took him from his mother seven years before.
“They just dropped him off on my doorstep,” she said. “I have been asking for my grandbaby back for years. I guess they decided they were finally done with him.”
In fact, her grandson Keewann had turned 18, “aged out” of DCF custody, and decided to go where he had always wanted to live: with family.
“I am his family. I am who he belongs with,” Sabra Mayo said.
Connecticut’s record of placing children with family members when DCF determines they can’t remain at home is among the worst in the nation. “That has to change immediately,” new DCF Commissioner Joette Katz says.
Merva Jackson, who advocates for disabled children in DCF custody, says family members come to her daily seeking her help to get their relatives back.
“If you don’t know how to advocate your way through their maze then that’s the nail in your coffin to getting your relative back,” said Jackson, executive director of the African-Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities.
Katz’s $887 million agency has been under federal court supervision for two decades, following a class-action lawsuit accusing the agency failing to protect at-risk children and to provide adequate care for children in its custody.
Since oversight began, the number of children in DCF care overall has decreased. But for the nearly 4,700 children who currently are in DCF custody, advocates and Katz agree too few are placed with relatives. One national advocacy group reports that Connecticut ranks well above the national average in removal of children from their homes and near the bottom in terms of placing those children with relatives.
Katz’s goal is to have half of children in DCF custody placed with relatives–double the national average and far above the state’s current 14 percent rate.
DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said the numbers show the agency’s record of placing children with family members has declined over the last decade. Ten years ago, he said, one out of every four children was placed with a relative when it was determined they could not remain in their home. Today, just one in every seven children is sent to live with a relative.
“I don’t think there’s been adequate focus on this,” Kleeblatt said.
“Connecticut grossly underuses the least harmful [type of care] — placement with a relative,” says Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, which issued the reports on Connecticut’s family placement record.
A report by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s transition team has also highlighted the problem.
“DCF regulations and practice are barriers to kinship care; resulting in the number of DCF children living in relative foster care to fall well below the national average,” the report said.
Agency officials and advocates agree that if a child must be taken from their home the best alternative is to place them with their relatives.
“People have a need to know where they came from. They want to know their family and their chances for success also improve when they stay with them,” Katz said.
“It just doesn’t make any sense. Why are we keeping so few families together?” echoed Sarah Eagan, a lawyer for the Center for Children’s Advocacy. “This is contributing to a gridlock in the whole system.”
So why exactly has the agency fallen short in keeping families together?
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.”
During Katz’s first days on the job she streamlined the process for getting regulations waived for family members. Previously, several people would need to sign off before the waiver would get to the commissioner’s desk for final approval. Now Katz isn’t even requiring it make it to her desk. Case workers and their managers contact Kenneth Mysogland, who is in charge of where children in DCF custody are placed, directly for final approval.
“It was 10 levels of signatures. She eliminated that,” Mysogland said. “I am seeing a significant number of waiver requests come through that would have never come through before.”
Mayo said when her grandson was taken from his mother years ago a social worker did come to her home in Hartford with a clipboard and what looked like a checklist to inspect after she requested custody.
When read some of the requirements that exist today, she said the requirements may sound reasonable, but the reality is she couldn’t afford to have a bigger place with a separate bedroom for Keewann.
“I don’t think we need to be judged by their standards of living,” she said.
“I am sure that relatives wish they could have another bedroom for them. But who’s going to pay for that?” she said. “Over the years we have been a responsive state and made these regulations for everyone to abide by based on a situation that arises. We have to stop doing that. It’s not a one size fits all.”
Katz and Mysogland agree the regulations should not be a barrier.
“We are telling our staff licensing is not a checklist. The response in previous administrations was ‘no’ when someone didn’t meet every requirement. That is no longer the case,” Mysogland said.
This issue has also captured legislator’s attention. The Select Committee on Children voted this week in favor of several bills aimed at increasing relative placement, including no longer requiring relatives have a separate bedroom to take in a child. Another proposal backed by DCF would expand a program that places children removed from their homes with familiar people such as clergy, teachers or family friends.
Currently children under the age of 10 cannot be placed with anyone not licensed by DCF — a process that can take up to 6 months. Instead DCF wants to treat these familiar people like family members and allow children to be immediately placed in their homes while they work to get licensed, assuming they pass a home inspection.
“There are plenty of people who you may call family but you don’t have a blood connection with them. I think we are losing people as the days and the weeks go on and they try to get a license,” Mysogland said. “This change would immediately have a positive result for that child. It allows them to stay with someone they are familiar with instead of stranger in a foster home.”