Urgent Need To Help Children Addressed During Forum At Capitol
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
December 06, 2007
For nearly one third of the more than 5,000 children living in state foster care, the future is bleak.
Their chances for adoption are slim. Their parents are long gone. No one is stepping forward to offer them a safe, permanent and loving home.
They merely exist, living out of suitcases and bags, bouncing from one foster home to another, one school to another, separated from their siblings, their neighborhoods, their friends and all that is familiar to them. They live with people who get paid to care for them. If they are lucky, they are loved.
That's 1,750 kids with no permanent family to embrace on the holidays.
It is a dismal statistic for Connecticut's child welfare agency, the Department of Children and Families, and one experts say lags far behind model states like Kansas and Pennsylvania, where the number of foster children with no plans for permanent future homes are 9.2 percent and 15.4 percent of each state's total foster care population.
On Wednesday, at a foster care forum at the state Capitol, Connecticut child advocates, service providers and others recognized the urgent need to help these children and to reduce the overall number of children taken away from their families because of allegations of abuse or neglect.
"Permanency is about restoring each child to their family," said Lauren Frey, director of permanency services for the nonprofit Casey Family Services, a national child welfare agency with offices in Connecticut. "We need to get them home, get them home safe and get them home quickly."
Many of the children languishing in foster care will take advantage of their right to walk away from state services when they turn 18. For those that "age out," as it is called, the future is equally dark.
National studies show only about half find regular employment; nearly half wind up getting arrested; and a quarter will experience homelessness. More than half of the young women who age out of foster care will give birth and a great many former foster children will rely on welfare programs to survive.
DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton said the agency has made reducing the number of children in foster care, and keeping families together, a priority.
The number of children removed from their homes because of allegations of child abuse or neglect dropped from a high of 3,261 in 2003 to 2,609 this year — a nearly 20 percent decline — according to the latest statistics provided by DCF.
Agency spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said DCF spent $1.4 million over the past year on a new effort that speeds up social workers' ability to assist families with such things as heating bills, food problems or transportation that can lead to findings of neglect. The goal, Kleeblatt said, is to get the families back on track within the first 20 days after the agency makes contact with them so that by the time the family needs to show up in court, the issues are resolved and the children, if taken, can be returned.
Although the program served fewer than 100 families, plans are in place to expand it, he said.
Indeed, much more needs to be done, said Shelley Geballe, president of Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven-based child advocacy group. She urged state social service agencies like DCF and the Department of Social Services to work together to help children and families.
Geballe pointed out that Connecticut DCF still spends less than 3 percent of its massive $800 million budget on child abuse and neglect prevention. National leaders like Allegheny County in Pennsylvania spend close to 25 percent of their child welfare budget on prevention programs. While Connecticut holds court hearings on foster children's permanency plans once or twice a year, Allegheny County mandates hearings every three months, Geballe said.
And while the legislature continues to pour money into DCF's sprawling foster care system, it has cut back funding for state-subsidized child care and heating assistance that wind up putting families at risk, she said.
"We're pushing families to crisis," Geballe said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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