Connecticut, 1995: Emily Hernandez, a child-known-to-the-system, dies. Gov. John Rowland demands that caseworkers tear apart more families. There is a foster-care panic, a huge increase in children torn from their families. Children continue to die.
Connecticut, 2003: Another child-known-to-the-system, Al-Lex Daniels, dies. Rowland sets off another foster-care panic. Children continue to die.
Connecticut, 2016: Another child-known-to-the-system, known in news accounts as Dylan, nearly dies, this time in the kinship foster home of a relative. But Connecticut does things differently now. The failings that led to the tragedy are identified, workers are disciplined, but there is no foster-care panic.
Connecticut has a different governor now (Rowland wound up in jail for corruption related to construction of a juvenile prison). As my organization, the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, discusses in detail in this report, the current governor, Dannel Malloy, and the Commissioner of his Department of Children and Families, Joette Katz, have brought a culture change to child welfare: They’re refusing to play politics with children’s lives.
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.
Less Foster Care, No Compromise of Safety
What is good for the kids is taking away fewer children. In 2009 the state took children at a rate more than 45 percent above the national average. By 2014, the rate of removal was down to the national average – though, sadly, still above the rate in states that are, relatively speaking, national models for keeping children safe.
In 2010, Connecticut used the worst form of “care” – group homes and institutions – at a rate more than 30 percent above the national average. Since then, institutionalization has declined by two-thirds.
In 2010, Connecticut used the least harmful form of foster care – kinship care – at a rate about 25 percent below the national average. Now it’s about 25 percent above the national average.
After all that, child safety improved according to the most reliable standard indicator, the rate at which children known-to-the-system are re-abused.
Of course, for someone like Marie Cohen, (another blogger for the Chronicle of Social Change, where this column originally was published) who’s never met an orphanage she didn’t like and who even sang the praises of an institution after it was exposed as a hellhole, all this success is terribly upsetting. So she has seized on a report by the state’s official “child advocate,” Sarah Eagan, to try to blame Connecticut’s reforms for the most recent tragedy.
After acknowledging that Katz is right when she says a single tragedy “should not be used to reverse needed policy changes,” Cohen proceeds to urge exactly that.
She cites weasel-worded claims from the child advocate’s report concerning how some documents “appear to reference…” this, some workers “seemed to be” that, and some events “raise the specter” of children being at risk.
But even the child advocate said the issue was failure to follow policy and ignorance of policy, not the policy itself.
A Heaping Helping of Innuendo
Cohen then piles her own innuendo on top of the child advocate’s innuendo, claiming workers might be placing children in unsafe kinship homes in order to please Katz and senior management.
But a key problem in Dylan’s case was the failure to obtain a waiver approving the home where the abuse allegedly took place. Precisely because of identified risk factors in that home, it falls into a category for which a waiver must be approved personally by Katz, a level of accountability almost unheard-of in child welfare. Another key problem: One caseworker essentially bragged in an email about her laziness.
Ignorance, laziness, refusal to follow procedures, and failure to get the Commissioner’s personal permission when required seem like odd ways to suck up to the boss.
The larger problem is the fact that “child advocate” offices, like Eagan’s, almost always operate in the same way – investigate the worst horror stories and draw sweeping conclusions. The problems with this methodology should be obvious (and, in fact, a former child advocate in New Jersey found a better way).
The Connecticut child advocate actually missed the single biggest failure in Dylan’s case. Excellent reporting by The Day in New London makes clear that Dylan never needed to be taken from his own home, if only his mother had received the right kinds of help. The real problem with the culture change in Connecticut is that it hasn’t gone far enough.
The child advocate’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.
If only there were a better way to evaluate child welfare systems. If only Connecticut had some fully independent authority; say, someone appointed by a court, who could review the entire system, examine representative cases and see if things really are getting better or worse, then we’d – oh, wait, Connecticut has such an authority.
Thanks to a consent decree that dates to 1989, an independent monitor performs comprehensive assessments of the system. For decades those assessments were dismal. But now, things have improved to the point that all sides have agreed to a streamlined decree that even the lawyer suing the state calls “a recognition of sustained progress by DCF in significant areas of its practice, particularly during this administration.” [Emphasis added.]
Politically, Gov. Malloy and Commissioner Katz have everything to lose and nothing to gain from their child welfare reforms. But they’re doing the right thing anyway. How often does that happen in government?
As long as Malloy and Katz refuse to cave in to the take-the-child-and-run crowd, the progress will continue.
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org This post is adapted from columns originally published at the Chronicle of Social Change and The Connecticut Mirror.