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Fewer Connecticut children are in the Lamont administration's foster care system

Jacquelyn Martin

Connecticut has seen a 19% drop in the number of children in foster care over the past two years, according to data released this month by the state Department of Children and Families.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with the agency's Commissioner, Vanessa Dorantes, about their efforts to keep children with their families.

Vanessa Dorantes: Families have been through the wringer over the last 20 months. And, you know, at DCF, we never closed. But we also had some of the same challenges that communities had related to service delivery throughout the pandemic. What we learned, though, and looking at our data, was the fact that we would be able to still help families and support families, while also adhering to our mission of child protection. And so over the pandemic, we have been able to really look at reunifications and finalization of adoptions as ways to get children and either stabilized in their family of origin or stabilized in a family.

WSHU: Now, let's talk about adoptions. I see here 450 adoptions were done this year alone. Could you put that in context?

VD: Absolutely. So when you think about the fact that when we look at the different types of dispositions that can occur when we remove a child from their home adoption is just one of those. So an average year, we typically have about 500 adoptions. So when we think about the completion or the disposition of adoption, we saw this year that even with the courts shifting to remote hearings, and really trying to adapt to, you know, the use of technology to have those hearings, we were still able to accomplish that 450 adoptions. So much though, that on adoption day 52 children had their adoption, finalized in 10 courts across the state.

WSHU: And as far as having children in permanent homes, not everyone is adopted, when you place a child in foster care, is that considered permanent? How does foster care work into the whole system? And where do we stand as far as foster care is concerned in Connecticut?

VD: I love this question, because I think it gives us an opportunity to clarify and help people understand the different levels of temporary care. So of course, you know, first and foremost, we'd like to have children remain home safely and their families. But when that can't happen, the next option would be with a relative or someone that they know Connecticut is really proud to have about 44% of our children and relative or kinship care. When you think about stabilization for kids, how much more stable they are when they are with relatives or someone that they know, the next piece of that is also we have a cadre of core foster homes and therapeutic foster homes when family members are not available or that we can't play safely with relatives. And then the continuum from that point forward is to determine what it is that we have to do to either reunify, transfer guardianship to that relative or consider adoption for that child. And so when you think about all of the levels of care, I appreciate the question because it is very methodical in terms of the steps that can be taken when a child has to be removed.

WSHU: Your number one concern is to try to keep families together as much as possible. How successful have you been in doing that? And do you have any figures that you could share with us?

VD: We certainly can. I think the misnomer for DCF is the fact that all we do are remove children. You know, when you hear DCF, immediately people's thoughts go to, “well, they're coming here to take my kids.” For us, we service about 13,000 unique families annually. And the goal and primary objective. And what typically happens is children stay home. What you hear from us is when that can't occur when we have to remove children because of a safety factor. Those are the times where children have to come and care but the overwhelming majority of kids in those 13,000 families stay home.

WSHU: And how do you manage that? How do you try and resolve the problem so that the child can and the family can stay together as a unit?

VD: Connecticut has a wonderful array of community based service providers. So if there are things such as untreated mental health issues. Substance use issues by the parent or the child. Housing instability or food insecurity, we can refer to our service array of credentialed and contracted providers to help families through that crisis. And really thinking about once the crisis or the danger is mitigated. We can continue to work with the family but we can do that with the family as a unit. The child doesn't have to be out of the home once the safety factor is kind of mitigated and so I appreciate the question. because, you know, we work very hard with our community based service providers to be able to help families out of that crisis situation, back to some level of stability.

WSHU: We've had a rise in mental health issues in the past couple of years in connection with the pandemic. And yet you've been able to mitigate and keep families together, how have you been able to do that? We would have thought that it would be going in the opposite direction at this time.

VD: What we know from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and just this week, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a statement related to the increase in children's behavioral health concern. And I would say, you know, also that increase in children's mental health instability has paralleled on the adult side. And when we think about families experiencing some type of mental health crisis or community's response to that, you know, it is not something that we recognize is an inhibition for children to be able to remain home with treatment. But it's the other piece of the puzzle that you know, as you stabilize, and, you know, kind of look at our full continuum of care, how do you help kind of address the the behavioral health crisis at the same time of really trying to reinforce what's happening and strengthening that family?

WSHU: And finally, you've got about a 19% reduction in children out of the home. You've been with the department over the years. Can you put that in context?

VD: I was appointed by Governor Ned Lamont, in the beginning of 2019, we had over 4,300 children in care. Also, we had hundreds of children just a decade ago, in very expensive out of state placements. And my predecessor really looked to building that infrastructure of you know, having those residential treatment centers stood up here in Connecticut to be able to meet the needs of kids. So for instance, with that particular statistic, the hundreds of kids that were placed in out of state treatment facilities, that number now is six, you know, really recognizing the strength of the providers here in Connecticut. And what it is that is the characteristic of children that are still in foster care here. We believe very strongly that children do best in families. And when we think about issues of equity, disproportionality, we know that families are resilient, we know that they need support, rather than surveillance. So really thinking about what it is that we can do to provide in home support to children within their community. And, you know, really lifting up the strength of families during a time of crisis for most families that the you know, pandemic revealed, we really do think that children are better off.

WSHU: Now, was DCF, able to get into any of the COVID-19 relief funding, and has that helped you in what you've been able to do?

VD: Right. And so as we thought about many of the federal resources that came into the state, the governor asked us a very pointed question. And that was, let's create recommendations that are sustainable beyond this influx of federal resources. And you know, the worst thing that you can have happen is over build the system right now and the time of crisis that can't be sustained once that money stops coming into the state. So it was really examining what we had in terms of our current service array. So I will give you one of the examples of how we were able to use our federal dollars. We have something called Access Mental Health, which provides pediatricians with connections to real time consultation, of psychiatric supports for the children that they see. We were able to increase that Access Mental Health. We were also able to establish with our partners at Department of Social Services, 12 care coordination positions that are currently being added to the cadre of people who help with discharge delivery to really try to compress and decongest children backing up in the emergency rooms that we have here in Connecticut and across the country. So those are just a couple of examples of how we were able to use federal funds in a way to increase some of the services that we already have, and really think about some innovative and unique models of addressing children's behavioral health, but also when keeping families together.

WSHU: A lot of people have been concerned about what is the perception of an increase in juvenile crime since the pandemic and you are talking about actually intervening and being able to keep families together. So how do you explain that to someone who says, “Well, that sounds great, but I see all these stories about an increase in juvenile crime.”

VD: What I would venture to say is that it creates an opportunity for conversation about how children express themselves when they are experiencing trauma or toxic stress. All families we know have been really shaken up by the pandemic. Whether it was in their own physical health or mental health, as we were just talking about, economic instability, housing, or employment loss. Some children internalize those behaviors. And that's where you see suicidal ideation and kids having trouble with anxiety and depression. But I would also venture to say that externalizing behaviors are just as important for us to pay attention to as it relates to children and youth. Because some of those same kids that we're seeing that are committing some of those crimes, yes, have to be held accountable, but have to also be looked at through the lens of what do these children and families and communities need to be able to address the stress that they've been under? I think it's a trauma response, just like some of those other areas that we were just talking about. And it's for us, the stakeholders, to work together to really get those children also the types of services that will help them just like we would on the children's behavioral health side. So thank you so much for asking that question. Because I do think it gets muddied with rhetoric sometimes to just think the only solution is to lock the child up. And for me, a child needs us to understand what the root causes of their behavior is, whether it's an internalized response, or an externalized response. It's up to us as the community to really lean into kids to really help stabilize them in their family.

WSHU: Anything else that you'd like our listeners to know that I might not have asked about? The work of DCF?

VD: Yeah, it's just the fact that children are strongest and best when their families are supported. And we as the Connecticut Department of Children and Families have evolved over the years to recognize that children are strengthened, situations are mitigated when we can all work together across the continuum of the child welfare system and not just the agency that we represent. When children are reunified home, we don't see an increase in reentry or repeat maltreatment, which tells us that we can continue to service kids and families in the context of their communities when we can, you know, link arms with our other stakeholder partners.

Vanessa Dorantes is the commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Children and Families.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.