Jennifer Mitchell has been a foster parent to almost 200 children over the last three decades, but she’s finally thinking of quitting.
“If I was getting the services my kids needed then I probably wouldn’t have to give up,” the mother from Milford said. Mitchell estimates only half of the children she has fostered in the last few years were provided the services they needed by the Department of Children and Families. “I don’t know how much more I can put up with.”
Mitchell is not alone.
An analysis of reasons foster parents give for dropping out found 20 percent quit because they felt DCF workers didn’t respect them, that they didn’t get adequate support from the agency, or that their children didn’t get the services they needed.
“These negative interactions poison foster parents’ perception of the agency,” said Jake Siegel, a policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children and author of the analysis.
Twenty years of court monitoring later, DCF is still heavily relying on congregate group homes because there are not enough foster parents for the 4,700 children in state custody on any given day.
In the last six months of 2010, DCF lost more than 450 foster homes, according to the federal court monitor’s most recent report.
Ken Mysogland, who is in charge of where children are placed for DCF, said the department is working to retain foster parents. He said the department has appointed a point person whose primary responsibility is to handle foster parent complaints and ensure their issues are addressed. He also said there has been an overhaul in staff training and requiring they return all phone calls within 48-hours.
“It starts with us… If we lose one parent because they don’t have what they need then that is one too many,” he said during an interview. “We do have problems with retention” of foster parents.
Both Mysogland and child advocates say the results of the annual survey of foster parents leaving the system are troubling.
The survey, conducted by the Connecticut Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents under contract to DCF, found 27 percent of the foster parents interviewed said the agency did not provide support in crisis situations. Twenty percent said DCF did not meet with them regularly, and 25 percent said the agency did not help them access resources for their foster children.
Tracey Diglio-Nylen, a foster parent from Derby of twin girls, is one of them. She said her questions about the process went unanswered by DCF too often.
“I am their mother, I want to know everything about them,” she said. “You are kind of left in the shadows not knowing what’s going on. I didn’t have anyone to turn to for questions to be answered” when deciding to move forward with adopting the twins.
Siegel said DCF has routinely failed to address the problems of foster parents.
“Despite negative foster parent feedback, DCF has not yet taken sufficient action to improve the interactions between its staff and foster parents,” he wrote in the report released today.
DCF’s Mysogland said the agency is in the process of completing a strategic plan for the foster care system that will be finished by July 1.
“I don’t know when the last time is we did that,” the 22-year DCF employee said.
State legislators also are targeting the foster care system with a “Foster Parents Bill of Rights.” The proposed bill would, among other things, require DCF to provide parents with notification of meetings involving their children, a timely response to requests, and access to the support services for necessary care. However, the bill does not have any ramifications if DCF fails to provide any of these rights and does not permit the foster parent to take the state to court.
Sen. Paul Doyle, sponsorer of the bill, said the state first needs to set a precedent of what foster parents deserve.
“At least set their rights so they know what they deserve,” he said.
Diglio-Nylen said it took her months after the twins were placed to receive their medical records and other pertinent information from DCF.
“Six months into it I was still looking for that packet of information,” she said. The legislature is also considering another bill that would require foster parents be provided with more information that is currently considered confidential.
Jean Fiorito, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Adoptive and Foster Care Parents, said the number one complaint she hears is that DCF doesn’t return phone calls.
“What drives foster parents away is people don’t return phone calls. If they don’t return phone calls how are their children going to get the services they need?” she asked.
Mitchell shares that frustration.
“I have just figured out how to get what I need from the system on my own. You really have to if you want the kids to get what they need,” she said. But she said that expertise has taken years to master, it’s the new foster parents she worries about. “They just won’t get what they need. And they wonder why kids bounce from home to home.”
But Diglio-Nylen said even though she has often been frustrated with DCF, that doesn’t outweigh the benefits.
“I have been able to get over that. Someone has to be these children’s advocate,” she said, but added she just wishes she didn’t have to spend so much time and money weaving her way through the system. “It gets expensive. We had to hire a lawyer. Not every parent is able to do that.”