When state officials removed Alixes Rosado from his home in Hartford as a child, his first question wasn’t about why he would no longer see his mother. He wanted to know when he would get to see his brothers and sister again.
The answer, as he would soon spend the next 11 years of his life finding out, was rarely. Visits with his oldest brother ended when his sibling was sent to live in Massachusetts. His supervised reunions with his other two siblings were typically confined to an hour and happened about once a month.
“That’s not enough to build or maintain a relationship,” Rosado said at the state Capitol Wednesday. “It was rough growing up… The relationship is just not there. There is no true friendship. There is no true bond that a brother and sister should share.”
Faced with outcry from people like Rosado — and a federal review finding that one-third of the children whose cases were reviewed had not visited their siblings for several months — state senators Wednesday unanimously approved a bill that, starting in October 2014, would require the state Department of Children and Families to facilitate weekly meetings for some children.
“This is monumental,” said Sen. Terry Gerratana, D-New Britain, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Select Committee on Children. “We are devoted to families, [to] keeping families intact.”
But the state’s tight budget has delayed this new requirement from going into effect and how widespread it will reach.
“There were some fiscal concerns,” Gerratana said of not implementing these visits immediately or for everyone.
This bill will guarantee weekly visits for one of every seven children, a fraction of the 228 foster children who live separately from their siblings. Children who live more than 50 miles from their brother or sister will not be guaranteed reunions. Offering visits to every child in state custody would cost $3 million a year, according to the legislature’s budget office. Visits covered in this bill will cost $100,000 a year.
“It’s a great first step,” several legislators said during a news conference before the Senate vote.
Mickey Kramer, the state’s acting child advocate, said that while she is happy that some children will be guaranteed weekly visits, she is disappointed the legislature won’t require these visits to be offered to every child.
“It isn’t the child who chooses to be 50 miles away from their brother… This sounds like it’s a decision made on costs and convenience. We have to make decisions for the best interest of kids,” she said.
The Yale School of Medicine provided the legislature with several studies that show children involuntarily separated from their siblings exhibit increased anxiety and depression and have anger issues.
“The longer a child is in the system, the more likely they are to lose contact with their siblings… That’s devastating for them,” said Joan Kaufman, from Yale’s Child Study Center.
The department has long been criticized for keeping too few abused and neglected children together with their siblings. A federal court order that the state has been under for two decades requires that 95 percent of children removed from their home remain with their siblings in their new living situation. The agency has not met that requirement in more than six years.
So for those abused and neglected children who aren’t kept with their siblings, legislators acknowledge fiscal restraints are limiting them from offering weekly visits for every child.
However, they hinted that it is their intention to eventually have these regular visits required for all abused and neglected children in state custody, no matter where they live.
“We would like to get there someday,” Gerratana said before the Senate vote Wednesday afternoon.
While lawmakers hold off on requiring sibling visits by law for everyone, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz has pledged to move the state in that direction.
“We are going to do this whether it’s legally mandated or not,” she said.
But child advocates want to ensure that future commissioners also set this as a priority. Many advocates say sibling reuninfication was not always a concern for previous commissioners, as stories from children wanting to see their brothers and sisters prove.
“Frequently, any request for more consistent or frequent visitation is met with refusal,” Chris Oakley, a lawyer who represents children in DCF, told legislators earlier this year. “Visits are often infrequent in number, irregular in timing, and provided solely at the whim of the commissioner.”
This bill will largely remove from the commissioner the discretion of facilitating sibling visits, unless she determines such visits are harmful to a child’s wellbeing.