A child previously known to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families dies a horrible death. A prominent public figure rushes to scapegoat efforts to keep families together. Connecticut is putting too much emphasis on family preservation, the public figure claims.
Of course I’m talking about – 1995. The child was “Baby Emily” and the public figure was the state’s new Governor, John Rowland.
His efforts backfired.
With every caseworker terrified that the next Baby Emily might be on her or his caseload, the number of children torn from their parents soared. As the Hartford Courant put it eight years later: “Child protection workers began removing children in record numbers, only to leave many languishing in foster care for months and sometimes years, while waiting for permanent homes.”
And child abuse deaths actually increased.
I’m also talking about 2003. Having learned nothing from his failed response to Baby Emily, Rowland repeated all the same mistakes in response to the death of Al-Lex Daniels, starting another foster-care panic.
By 2010, the disgraced ex-Connecticut governor was just another ex-con. But his dreadful child welfare legacy lived on. In 2010, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, Connecticut took away children at a rate 50 percent above the national average when rates of child poverty are factored in. And it warehoused children in the worst form of care, group homes and institutions at one of the highest rates in the nation.
But nobody believes Connecticut children were 50 percent safer than the national average. On the contrary, the state remained mired in a decades-old consent decree, unable to show it could run even a minimally-adequate child welfare agency.
Yet now, prosecutor Anne Mahoney comes along and, in response to still another horror story, the death of Noah Nelson, demands that Connecticut make the same mistakes once again.
I’m going to give Mahoney the benefit of the doubt and assume she was genuinely moved by tragedy and not just out to grab a headline (which, obviously, she did with considerable success).
But either way, she is dangerously wrong, and her recommendations only increase the likelihood that more children will die.
Mahoney has her facts wrong. She demands that DCF reconsider its supposed policy of family preservation. But no matter what may be on paper, the facts on the ground show that the real policy wasn’t family preservation it was “take the child and run.”
So why didn’t that happen in the Nelson case?
When you take away too many children, everyone is overloaded, from frontline workers to supervisors to managers. Bad mistakes are made in all directions – at all levels. Even as some children are left in dangerous homes, more are taken from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help. A foster-care panic overloads everyone even more. They make even more errors in all directions. So children keep right on dying.
Now Anne Mahoney seeks to start that cycle all over again.
Fortunately, Mahoney is not the governor. And DCF now has a leader who knows better than to fall for the approach that has failed so many times before.
Although former Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz was too new to the job of DCF Commissioner to affect the Nelson case, now that she’s been on the job for a year, Connecticut really is trying to do more to keep families together.
As a result, DCF is showing its first significant improvement in more than a decade. That’s not my assessment – that’s from the latest report from the independent monitor overseeing Connecticut’s child welfare consent decree – the least pessimistic such report in more than a decade. Even the group that brought the lawsuit says that, finally, there is real improvement, even as DCF has a long, long way to go.
No approach will prevent every tragedy. If the criterion for success is that no child known to DCF ever dies, then DCF and every other child welfare agency in America always will fail. But DCF’s new approach makes children safer, while the Rowland/Mahoney take-the-child-and-run strategy has been proven, time and time again, to make all children less safe.
So as people ponder the words of Anne Mahoney, I hope they’ll also remember the blunders of John Rowland – and then remember the proverb that says “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”
Fool me three times isn’t even covered.