Child welfare worker Elisangela Silva had grown used to the reaction she received from showing up at strangers’ doors unannounced to inform them the state is investigating whether they are abusing or neglecting a child. It typically was adversarial.
“Slammed doors, flaring arms in the air, yelling at me,” the seven-year veteran social worker in Bridgeport said. “They have the right to be angry. We are showing up at their door telling them we think they might be abusing their kid.”
But the practice of showing up unannounced following any credible allegation ended on March 2 by a memo sent to Department of Children and Families employees by the new commissioner.
“The long-held practice of unannounced home visits does not support the [agency’s] principles,” wrote Commissioner Joette Katz. Unannounced visits should take place only in “rare, serious,” she said. “The expectation is that all social work staff and supervisors will begin announced visits.”
In Bridgeport, where Silva works, this change has meant the eight allegations of abuse or neglect that office typically receives each day now are handled in a markedly different fashion.
Unless it is determined that child is in imminent danger, families will not be surprised by a social worker showing up at their door asking for personal information and to look around the home. Instead, they will be called to inform them of the allegations and schedule a convenient time to meet.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Why are you guys calling me? I thought you guys just show up and take people’s kids away,’” said Rhonda S. Moore, who has been a social worker for 13 years in the Bridgeport area. “This is a huge change.”
But not everyone welcomed to the change, including some social workers at the department who fear they may be placing children in danger by not intervening right away.
“There is this belief that we won’t catch them in the act if we call ahead. My response is that is it isn’t about catching them,” said Maria H. Brereton, the director for the DCF region covering Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford, who heard many of those concerns from her staff.
Jeanne Milstein, the state’s child advocate who leads the panel responsible for investigating what went wrong when a child known to DCF dies, is cautiously supportive of this change.
“I understand the commissioner’s intent and I hope the safety of the child will be there. The staff needs to work really carefully to assess the situation when making that call of whether to go right away,” she said.
Katz made it clear that staff are only to visit homes immediately and unannounced when there is a perceived imminent danger to that child. Allegations such as educational neglect from a child missing too many days of schools, physical neglect from substandard living conditions, or domestic violence cases where the perpetrator has been removed from home can wait for a scheduled visit.
Bridgeport-area officials estimate that only one out of every 10 allegations they receive are serious enough for a social worker to be dispatched immediately. Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for DCF, estimates that of the 40,000 allegations made each year statewide, only about 10 to 15 percent reach the level of needing immediate attention.
In a follow-up guidance letter to employees in July, DCF officials wrote that unannounced visits can also take place if phone calls are not returned or the parent does not show up for two scheduled visits.
Richard Wexler, head of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, praised Katz for making a “bold move”, adding he does not know of any other states that have taken such drastic action.
“This is sound policy. She is the most courageous leader in child welfare today,” he said.
He worries though that the next time a highly-publicized death of a child in the DCF system takes place, pressure will be put on Katz to reverse this policy.
“A lot of people are going to give [Katz] a hard time about this,” he said.
“One day it’s all about family preservation and then something happens and it’s all about safety,” said Brereton, who has worked at the department on both sides of the pendulum. “We are accepting a certain level of risk.”
This change in investigating allegations falls in line with Katz’s goal of keeping more children in their homes. The state currently has has one of the highest rates in the country of removing children from their families.
Brereton said she believes the policy will keep more families together.
“We believe if we engage families, they will get the right services at the right time for the right problem,” she said. “We are getting the information we need to assess the situation in one visit now. That would have taken us three or four visits before.”
For Wisenite Laurent, who has been a social worker in Stamford for almost seven years, this change not only means people are not slamming doors in her face, they are even welcoming her in on some occasions.
“They are more willing to work with me,” she said.
She tells the story of a family accused of not having food for their children. “Yes, they may run to the store and get food before I come, but isn’t that what we wanted?”
And while she’s there, she will make sure they’re aware of area food banks and other services available to them.