Connecticut’s foster parents want to be able to tell judges and officials their thoughts about what’s best for the kids in their care, and they want to ensure that they’re heard— elements of what they hope will become a “foster parents’ bill of rights” in new legislation.
Several foster parents spoke about the need for more of a voice, bias training and less turnover among caseworkers at the state Department of Children and Families at a public hearing of the Committee on Children on Thursday on Senate Bill 480, sponsored by Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown.
“I’ve heard from foster parents in my area that we need to do more to support them,” Lesser said during Thursday’s public hearing. “That we are not doing enough to ensure that the foster parent system works at its best capacity.”
The bill contains few details. Committee members said they were using Thursday’s hearing to gather information and figure out the best course of action. Changes to the state’s foster care system can be complicated, as state lawmakers must navigate federal laws surrounding child welfare, said Rep. Liz Linehan, a Democrat from Cheshire and co-chair of the children’s committee.
Lawmakers and foster parents discussed a couple of ideas such as foster parents joining certain advisory groups or committees or becoming “interveners” in cases, a measure used in certain circumstances that allows foster parents to legally take part in a child abuse case.
A group of foster parents has been working together for just over a year to get legislation that solidifies their position in a child’s case.
“Foster parents are the ones on the front lines each and every day; we see what our children go through, and we understand the system very well,” Crystal Laffan, the group’s organizer, said in written testimony. “Yet we are rarely, if ever, consulted in our children’s cases nor in the policies governing their precious lives. Please listen to us and work with us to help improve the foster care system and ensure that our state’s most vulnerable children’s rights and safety are the biggest priority.”
Among foster parents’ concerns are that they’re not given space to speak in court hearings, that it takes too long for a permanent home to be found and that there isn’t enough transparency around what is going on with children’s cases, foster parents said in interviews.
Michael Williams, a deputy commissioner at DCF, said in response to legislators’ questions that the state has several avenues in place for foster parents to voice concerns, including meetings with DCF workers. Complaints can trigger larger meetings with many people involved in a child’s case.
“There are several processes in place and structures in place to make sure that the voices of our caregivers are heard loud and clear,” Williams said Thursday.
He added that DCF has bias training in place.
“I can share with you, being a licensed caregiver is probably one of the toughest jobs there is, because you’re caring for someone else’s children,” Williams said Thursday.
Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes said in written testimony that DCF would want to work on the foster parents’ bill of rights collaboratively with foster parents.
State statute allows foster parents to provide written testimony or speak to a child’s attorney about the well-being of a child, although foster parents said they aren’t always sure that their concerns are heard.
In some cases, judges will ask to hear foster parents’ thoughts, whereas in others they aren’t allowed in the courtroom, Margaret Doherty, executive director at the Connecticut Alliance of Foster and Adoptive Families, said in an interview.
The alliance encourages foster families to advocate for themselves and has some resources in place to help guide them, Doherty said.
DCF workers and attorneys also work to keep foster parents up to date about kids’ cases without breaking privacy laws, state officials said.
And while the pandemic did slow some cases down because courts were closed, cases are closed within time frames set by law, and no cases are backlogged, said Giovannii Salkey, chief clerk of Juvenile Matters, in an interview.
Still, foster parents Thursday shared stories of consistent problems navigating the system and worries about the well-being of the kids in their care.
Becky Carlson, who testified Thursday, told the story of the first foster daughter she brought home, who after four years in the system hasn’t found a permanent home. She said she didn’t feel her voice about the girl’s well-being was heard, even when the toddler was too young to speak for herself.
She added that the group is not against reunification but that they want to see clearer, guaranteed ways for their voices to be heard.
“By supporting this bill, you are supporting the ability for foster parents to better advocate for foster children, for case workers to get the support and training they need to best protect children, and hopefully to help reduce worker turnover in the long run,” Laffan said. “Please be a partner with us, and help protect our children.”