In every child welfare system, certain things are inevitable.

  • The only acceptable goal for child abuse tragedies is zero – but no system achieves it. Every system has horrible cases, including cases where it turns out the case file had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade.
  • When such a tragedy occurs, one or more elected officials will try to play politics with children’s lives.  That’s what Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano is doing now, in response to the near death of “Dylan.”  He’s calling for Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz to resign.  His whole approach to the case risks setting off a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden surge in needless removal of children from their homes.

That’s what disgraced former Gov. John G. Rowland did, twice, when he was in office.  Children’s families were needlessly destroyed, the children were traumatized by foster care, the system was overloaded – and the tragedies continued. The foster care panics made all vulnerable children less safe. It seems Fasano is a graduate of the John G. Rowland School of Child Welfare Demagoguery.  If anyone should resign, it’s Fasano.

Child Advocate Sarah Eagan hasn’t behaved much better, making extreme generalizations from a single case.  And she missed the biggest single failure in Dylan’s case: the fact that, had his mother gotten the right kinds of help, he and his siblings never needed to be taken away in the first place, something made clear by some excellent reporting from The Day.

NCCPR has released an update to our 2010 report on Connecticut child welfare.  The update is available here.

Among the key points:

  • Reforms initiated by Katz have significantly improved the lives of Connecticut’s vulnerable children.  That’s not just NCCPR’s view – the progress DCF has made toward exiting a decades-old consent decree also makes that clear. And federal data show there has been no compromise of children’s safety.
  • The state has finally curbed needless removal of children. In 2010 Connecticut took away children at a rate far above the national average when entries into care are compared to the number of impoverished children in each state. Now the rate is down to the national average. But Connecticut still takes more children than states that are national models for keeping children safe. Dylan’s case illustrates the fact that DCF still has work to do to reduce needless removal of children from their homes.
  • When children must be taken, DCF is making less use of the worst options, group homes and institutions, and more use of the least harmful: kinship foster care. Because Dylan was abused in the home of a relative, Eagan is now attacking kinship foster care.  But study after study has shown that kinship care is not just more stable than what should properly be called “stranger care” – it’s also safer. Links to reports and studies on kinship care are in our update.
  • The same kinds of horrors as occurred in Dylan’s case happen in states that take far more children and make far less use of kinship care. Case in point: Massachusetts.
  • The methodology used by Eagan stacks the deck and paints a distorted picture of Connecticut child welfare.  To truly understand how a child welfare system typically fails, you have to look at a comprehensive random sample of typical cases. Our update compares Eagan’s approach to another child advocate who did the job right.
  • Eagan’s approach also threatens to distract attention from another serious and real problem – the issue aptly summed up as “trading custody for care”– in which parents must surrender custody of children to get them the mental health care they need.  DCF must be required to provide more real, comprehensive help to these families without requiring them to give up custody.  But help does not equal institutionalization. There are better alternatives, including truly intensive in-home “wraparound” services.

Fortunately, both Katz and Gov. Dannel Malloy have a commendable history of standing up to grandstanding politicians. As Katz told the Hartford Courant:

Historically, when DCF had a bad outcome, everything would change. The next week, 500 children would be removed. We don’t do that. We know that wasn’t good for the kids.

And as you think about who should go and who should stay, consider this: How much does each player have to gain politically by taking her or his position? In the case of Katz and Gov. Malloy the answer is: nothing.  They have everything to lose and nothing to gain.  But they’re doing the right thing anyway.  How often does that happen in government?

The fact that no system can stop every tragedy is not grounds for complacency. We should demand that DCF do everything possible to reach the goal of zero, even if our reach always will exceed our grasp.  But the behavior of Eagan and Fasano moves Connecticut farther from that goal.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform,

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