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News of Foxwoods Conference

December 20, 2005 permalink

The Hartford Courant has finally reported on last month's Foxwoods Parental Rights Conference. While the article deals mostly with Connecticut, the lessons could benefit children in Ontario.



DCF Called Too Reliant On Foster Care

Connecticut's over-reliance on foster care is costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year and may be endangering children the state is trying to protect, a national child welfare advocate says.

National statistics show that children in foster care are physically and sexually abused at rates significantly higher than the general population, Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va., told an audience at the first Northeast Parental Rights Conference at Foxwoods Resort Casino last month.

Helping families in crisis stay together through intervention, guidance and support is less expensive and has been shown to be better for children than putting them into foster homes, said Wexler, whose opinions have been covered in The New York Times and on CNN and "60 Minutes."

Wexler cited a recent University of Florida study that tracked children born to cocaine-abusing mothers. Children who remained with their mothers through inpatient rehab fared better than those placed in foster care, the study found.

"The separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine," Wexler said. "It is very difficult to take a swing at so-called `rotten parents' without the blow landing squarely on the child."

Officials at the state Department of Children and Families say that the agency is removing fewer children and that the state foster care population is declining. But Wexler questioned DCF's effectiveness and says Connecticut lags far behind model child welfare programs in Michigan, Illinois and Alabama.

"Illinois and New York City learned from their mistakes," Wexler said. "They embraced safe, proven programs to keep families together. They slashed [child] removals by 60 percent and with no compromise of safety."

Illinois' foster care population has plummeted, in part, because that state changed the way private foster care agencies are funded. Instead of paying private agencies based on the number of children in foster care - as Connecticut does - Illinois rewards agencies for finalizing adoptions and returning children safely to their homes. Agencies are penalized when children languish in foster care.

As of Nov. 30, more than 6,000 Connecticut children were living in out-of-home care at an annual cost to taxpayers in excess of $260 million. Out-of-home care includes foster homes, group homes, shelters and institutions.

Contrary to popular belief, most children placed in foster care are not victims of serious abuse and probably don't need to be there, Wexler said.

Of the 523,000 children living in foster care nationally in 2003, only 11 percent were victims of serious physical or sexual abuse, Wexler said. The overwhelming majority of children in foster care were removed from their homes because of alleged neglect or issues such as inadequate housing, food or medical care.

DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said the agency has stepped up family preservation since Commissioner Darlene Dunbar took office in early 2003.

The agency has invested nearly $51 million in family preservation programs over the past year, many of them new. Of the 39,779 children being served by DCF, more than five out of six are receiving services at home, Kleeblatt said.

Kleeblatt said there were 194 fewer children living in out-of-home placements this November compared to November 2004. But the reason for the drop is unclear. It could be due to the agency's efforts to help families, kids in foster care turning 16 and leaving the system, fewer children entering foster care, an increase in adoptions or any combination of those factors.

Wexler concedes that DCF has made modest gains, but he pointed out that the $51 million earmarked for family preservation is but a pittance compared with the $260 million the state spends on foster care, group homes and institutions.

Wexler challenged Kleeblatt's position that the state is working comprehensively with families. He said a recent report from a federal official monitoring DCF's performance tells a much different story.

The federal monitor's November progress report found that only 20 percent of DCF investigators surveyed said their office had sufficient services to meet families' needs, Wexler said.

More than half of the families who needed help with housing didn't get it and more than a quarter of those identified as needing substance abuse treatment didn't receive any, according to the report.

When services were provided, many times they were inferior. More than half the DCF workers surveyed in the study acknowledged problems with poor quality services and nearly 40 percent acknowledged sending families to services they knew to be inferior.

When it comes to involving families in their treatment plans - seen by many to be a key to their ultimate success - DCF's track record isn't much better, Wexler said. Nearly 58 percent of the cases reviewed by the monitor didn't include a parent's perspective on what the key issues were, despite the fact that most successful interventions begin by addressing the needs the family thinks are important, Wexler said.

In 44 percent of the cases reviewed, there is no indication how progress is to be measured, which is key to whether a parent succeeds in meeting DCF's demands and is allowed to keep their child. In about two-thirds of the cases there were no timelines for completing cases, Wexler said. And in one quarter of the cases, the plan doesn't even say who is responsible for doing what in meeting DCF's goals.

Kleeblatt attributed some of the problems with treatment plans to workers' failure to fully document their work in the agency's computer database.

"The department is focused on improving how our social workers engage families in the process of planning and providing services," Kleeblatt said. "Training that has already begun and is continuing ... will substantially strengthen our staff's capacity to work with families."

Wexler said DCF's failure to make their treatment plans easily understandable to parents is particularly troublesome because parents who fail to meet DCF's goals risk having their children taken away.

Source: Hartford Courant