The call for help came from an emergency room nurse. Her patient, the mother of a young son, tried to commit suicide while the boy was home.
“She was worried about the kid,” Nana-Kyi Johnson, a social worker assigned to the Department of Children and Families’ 24-hour hotline, said of the nurse.
Had the call come in a few weeks earlier, an immediate investigation would have been launched, a social worker would have shown up at the mother’s hospital bed unannounced, and the boy would have been questioned.
These adversarial visits by DCF social workers often begin with the parent refusing to answer questions and end with the child being removed from the home to enter the state’s highly criticized foster care system.
Instead, on this Friday afternoon, Johnson began asking the nurse a list of questions.
She soon found out that the boy also lives with his father and that he was home during the suicide attempt. A quick check into DCF’s database shows the father had no history of mental illness or criminal behavior and that DCF had never been called on this family.
“This could wait until Monday for us to get involved. This child was in no immediate danger. He has his father,” Johnson said of her decision. “We would better serve this child if we worked in partnership with his parents.”
This flexibility given to social workers and Johnson’s handling of this case has become the new norm for DCF staff answering the 8,000 phone calls each month. It is a national model known as a Differential Response System, and Connecticut is following the lead of 20 other states by implementing it.
“In the old system, regardless of the circumstance, you were hitting the family with a hammer. And in most cases it’s an issue that they themselves want to get themselves out of. Our response did not fit,” said Erin Sullivan Sutton, the assistant commissioner for Minnesota’s child protection agency who helped pioneer this strategy. “Now we are working side-by-side these families to help them.’”
This involves getting the child’s family the support they need to improve his living situation.
And it seems to be paying off. Eight years after this system rolled out statewide in Minnesota, an independent analysis by the Institute of Applied Research, shows a drop in calls resulting in a child entering state custody. And maltreatment recurrence has declined.
“Their benefits have been found to persist,” Gary Siegel, the author of the report, said during an interview. “They recognize that all reported cases of abuse are not the same and should not be treated the same… The objective is to not be police-like and put up a shield but to be supportive and help them.”
Connecticut’s child welfare agency has noticed the success in other states and is hoping to follow suit. DCF, which has been under federal court oversight for two decades for failing too many abused and neglected children, launched its statewide differential response system in March.
“There is a stark difference in how we handle calls,” said Loida Reyes, the program manager of DCF’s hotline, now known as Careline.
In the first month of this new system, 21 percent of calls were directed down this less severe path, where parents can decide not to take DCF up on their offer for help.
Joette Katz, DCF commissioner, has said it is her intention to get that number up to 40 percent of calls by the end of the year.
Calls to the hotline with accusations of physical or sexual abuse are still treated as serious and immediate investigations launched.
There’s a cost
Ira Lustbader, of Children’s Rights and an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the longstanding lawsuit that led to federal court oversight of DCF, is happy the agency is using this new approach.
“This is the front edge of child thinking. It’s what’s best,” he said.
But he’s worried.
“If it’s not supported with the right training for staff and resources then it could be very, very, very dangerous,” he said.
The managers of Connecticut’s hotline said that every worker has been trained for this new model and are reminded daily with posters at the entrance of the call center in Hartford on how to handle certain cases.
A handwritten sign on the wall challenges DCF workers to think about using the new system in a relatively mundane scenario with potentially dangerous consequences: a child left alone in a parked car.
“If a child is left alone, but by the time the police arrive the parent is back, can this be a “differential response case?” the question on the sign asks.
“It’s really a culture change. There will be some resistance from those who have been around,” said Sullivan of Minnesota’s child welfare system. “Change is hard. The thinking had been that to protect children you had to remove them from their families. But we should not assume because they are reported to child protection that they are awful parents.”
Regardless of which path the child’s case is sent down — be it an investigation or starting a conversation with the family — child advocates largely agree if the money isn’t there for services then these efforts will fail.
“You help the child by helping the family. To address those needs through child protection you have to have the resources… The engagement part is critical of the model but so is providing the services once you find out what their needs are,” said Siegel, who has evaluated numerous DRS systems across the country. “Some states have put in money and some states haven’t.”
Connecticut’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 provides $9.3 million for services for these less severe cases.
“The agency will have enough resources to fund this,” said Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for DCF. “These families will get the services early on before it becomes a severe situation for that child.”
Another problem in this new approach will likely be when a child reported to DCF’s hotline is referred down this less severe track dies. Last year, Katz’s others reforms were tested when an Ansonia infant was killed after DCF decided to keep the child in his home.
Sullivan Sutton of Minnesota said she’s constantly holding her breath for that phone call of a child known to the system has died.
“There are going to be tests on whether this is the right approach,” she said.
Cindy Bowman, the other program manager of Connecticut’s hotline, said regardless, the goal for her social workers remains the same as it always has — “We don’t want to see these families again. Working with the family to get them these services early on will help us reach that goal.”