The sweeping changes the Department of Children and Families has made in recent months are drawing the ire of the agency’s advisory panel, whose members–as parents, community providers, child lawyers and foster parents–are seeing first-hand the ramifications.
“You need to hear the crap that’s going on,” Janice Andersen, the deputy director of a Bridgeport-based group that deals with juvenile justice and other child welfare issues, told a top DCF official Monday.
It wasn’t quite the reaction Fernando Muniz was expecting. He came to the meeting with a three-page update on the positive impact of keeping more children with their families, how reducing congregate care for the youngest children has played out and how the number of children living out of state has declined.
“As we have sat around this table all these years, these are all things you asked for,” Muniz said in response to the harsh criticism. “Your points have been well taken.”
But members of the State Advisory Council say many of the changes are causing widespread concern.
“Foster families are in absolute panic that you are sending children into unsafe homes. Just because someone shares the same genes does mean their criminal history shouldn’t matter,” said Laurie Landry, a therapist in Wethersfield. “What are you thinking?”
Connecticut previously had one of the lowest rates in the country of placing abused and neglected children with family members when it was determined they couldn’t stay at home. Because of this, the department began waiving what Muniz describes as “the most restrictive guidelines in the country.” That often includes waiving what the agency calls a non-relevant criminal record.
As a result of the changes, the number of children placed with family members increased from one in seven at the end of last year to one in five in September.
The group also said the agency’s move to decrease the number of abused and neglected children with specialized needs being sent to live out-of-state–from 364 children in January to 258 in October–also is having some harmful affects.
“They may be coming home, but we aren’t prepared for them,” said Betsy Palmer-Ehrenfeld, who coordinates a network of foster homes for special-needs children across the state. She says the money is not available to ensure appropriate treatment for children with severe behavioral issues such as cutting themselves or exhibiting problem sexual behavior.
Muniz said many of those that were living out-of-state aged out of care, some went home and others were placed in facilities in the state. He said about half of the applications to place a child out-of-state have been rejected since the start of the year.
Anderson, who is the chairwoman of the advisory panel, also complained that parents continue to be treated poorly by DCF, despite the agency’s ending surprise visits in response to allegations of abuse and neglect.
“There’s a huge elephant in this room we have to talk about,” she said. “You are not really trying to get parents and families involved.” She cited advice the department is giving school districts in the Bridgeport region on how to handle a situation when they suspect a child is not getting the health care they require. “They are being told to report the parent for medical neglect. You should be helping them find the help.”
Muniz responded that there would undoubtedly be hiccups in implementing such sweeping changes, but reminded the group that it is the agency’s number one job to make sure children are safe.
“DCF is not intended to be a poverty help program,” he said of the new approach of differentiating accusations of neglect from children living in poverty. He said the approach is to direct these cases to the appropriate state agency for services– most often, the Department of Social Services.
That upset Andersen.
“You are going to send them to 2-1-1 and DSS? Give me a break they can’t even pick up the phone. That makes no sense,” she said