Feds: ‘Systemic issues’ still hamper DCF care for foster kids

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last fall during a press conference to celebrate the successes of kinship care.

The Department of Children and Families often places abused or neglected youths in living situations without making a concerted effort to provide necessary supports to the youths and their caregivers.

That’s the conclusion of a much-anticipated review released Tuesday by the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The review is one the federal government does every three or four years of state child welfare agencies across the country.

Finding a safe and stable placement for at-risk youths “is hindered by systemic issues,” the 39-page review of Connecticut reported after reviewing 82 random cases. DCF has roughly 4,000 children in care on any given day.

Many of the conclusions in this report mirror deficits outlined in other outside reviews of the agency – testing the approach Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration has taken to keep more at-risk youth with their families by offering additional supports.

When Malloy first took office in 2011, just 21 percent of youth in the system were living with relatives compared to almost half now. The state accomplished this by moving youths out of costly group homes and from out-of-state care.

But a growing chorus of state legislators and advocates have been sounding the alarm that, while more children are being placed with family members, the DCF is not providing the services they require in the community.

The state has been under federal court oversight for 25 years for failing too many abused or neglected children, and plaintiffs in the case have grown increasingly concerned that mid-year cuts from the state continue to hamper improvement. The state is slated to be back in court in April for a status conference, and a forum is scheduled at the state Capitol on Monday to hear about the federal report.

The systemic issues highlighted in the federal agency review of the sampled cases included:

  • Not all services to meet the needs of families are available statewide. DCF made concerted efforts to provide services to 67 percent of the families with children in foster care and 55 percent of cases whose children were living at home but were still under DCF supervision. When specific needs were identified, the agency attempted to offer relevant services to just one-third of those in foster care and one-fifth of those living with their families under state supervision.
  • There are not enough non-relative placement resources available to meet the needs of the children requiring foster care. This has led in some cases to moving children around from home to home.
  • There was a “lack of accurate ongoing assessment of risk and safety factors.” The agency made concerted efforts to assess and address risk and safety concerns in two-thirds of the cases reviewed of children in foster care and one-third of the cases whose children were living at home under DCF supervision.
  • After a report to the state’s abuse hotline, “face-to-face contact with the alleged victim was inconsistent and sometimes beyond 72 hours after the investigation was initiated.” The agency has a four-tier system for prioritizing response times, ranging from two hours to 72 hours. However, the department did not meet those response timelines 41 percent of the time.
  • DCF has challenges monitoring and providing oversight for children on psychotropic medications.
  • “The agency engages mothers more frequently that fathers.” In cases where visitations are appropriate between parents and foster youths, the DCF did a sufficient job in three-quarter of the cases facilitating visits between children and their mothers. For fathers, visits were attempted in only 56 percent of the cases.

These findings have led the leader of the state’s child welfare agency to once again promise reforms.

“We constantly strive to achieve better outcomes for the children and families we serve,” Commissioner Joette Katz said in a statement. “Using data to identify areas for improvement is a strength for our department… The improvement process is something that we are good at, and this affords us an excellent opportunity to build on those strengths and enhance child safety as a result.”

The review follows a series of outside reviews of the agency outlining major shortfalls in care being provided to youth and their families.

In the last 15 months, the state’s Office of the Child Advocate, an independent watchdog, has released two reports criticizing DCF for what it termed systemic issues with the vast agency’s oversight of children removed from their families. (Read more here and here)

In the most recent report, the child advocate documented a case in which DCF staff dismissed the pleas of a foster parent who repeatedly reached out for help; failed to notice months of malnourishment and the near-starvation of baby “Dylan;” and didn’t identify a troubling criminal and substance-abuse history in the home where he was placed.

In the earlier case police were called because a 2-year-old under DCF supervision was found wandering in the snow in a diaper and tee-shirt. DCF had received several phone calls, including one from a police officer, warning that the child’s mother was unfit, but the agency had continued to rate the case as low risk.

The state has been under federal court oversight for 25 years for failing too many abused and neglected children. In the federal court monitor’s most recent report, he again concluded the problem stems from the state not spending enough money to provide the mental health and other services services to families or agency staff to properly supervise at-risk children.

“Additional staffing and community resources are sorely needed,” Raymond Mancuso, the federal court monitor of DCF, wrote in February.

While DCF’s budget was cut significantly between fiscal 2009 and 2013, legislators have more recently shielded the agency from deep cuts imposed on other agencies, and DCF’s budget has rebounded since 2013. During Malloy’s first year in office in 2011, DCF’s spent $808.3 million, according to the state comptroller’s annual reports. This fiscal year, the agency is on pace to receive $794.2 million, a 1.7 percent reduction.

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About Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline won two first prizes from the national Education Writers Association for her work in 2012 – one in beat reporting for her overall education coverage, and the other, with Keith Phaneuf, in investigative reporting on a series of stories revealing questionable monetary and personnel actions taken by the Board of Regents for Higher Education. Before coming to The Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.'s Maryland newspaper chains. She has also worked for Congressional Quarterly and the Toledo Free Press. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Jacqueline is in the public policy master’s program at Trinity College. E-mail her at jrabe@ctmirror.org.

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