Changing the Culture in Child Welfare

In its report to the President and Congress, the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities articulated a vision for the future of child welfare.

They wrote: “Imagine a society where the safety and well-being of children are everyone’s highest priority, and federal, state, and local agencies work collaboratively with families and communities to protect children from harm.”

This is a vision and mission we share and one we work hard to achieve.

When I was confirmed as Commissioner of Connecticut’s DCF nearly six years ago, I inherited a state child welfare department that was one of 21 nationwide operating under a court consent decree. Established 25 years ago, it mandated federal oversight for specific outcome measures for improvements in our child welfare system, including: better attention to children’s needs, enhancing foster care and reducing congregate placements, providing mental health services, and more.

Studies have long shown that the trauma children experience from being removed from home is significantly diminished if the children live with someone they know and love. And yet, when I joined the department, only 21 percent of youth in care were living with a family member. With more than 50 group homes across our state, a majority of children were being raised in institutions or congregate care settings rather than in foster families or kinship care. Many were actually being sent out of state for mental health treatment.

To address these disparities, I knew we would need to change not just the policies, but the culture as well.

The culture of child welfare and safety has historically shied away from engaging families, often viewing them as the source of the problem rather than part of the solution. It’s not hard to understand why. The average job expectancy for a Commissioner is 18 months. Our child welfare system is designed to be risk averse and to reset in the face of a failure rather than learn from the past. This means that the default option often becomes the most drastic – removal of a child from the home.

As a former public defender and member of the Connecticut Supreme Court, I had both represented and sat in judgment of people who had been failed by the system as children, and I knew that families had to be at the center of our solution.

To achieve this, we adopted the Strengthening Families practice model which has family engagement at its foundation. By establishing a working partnership with families, we are better able to provide vital services and supports like mental health and substance abuse treatment. By including relatives and non-custodial parents in that engagement, we also ensure that both the child’s and the family’s voice are heard throughout every stage of the child welfare process. Case plans are strength-based and responsive to each family’s unique needs and values. We worked closely with Annie E. Casey Foundation Child Welfare Strategy Group to develop and implement a Considered Removal Child and Family Teaming model that attempts to preserve the family unit, minimize disruption and trauma associated with the removal, placement and separation of the child from his/her family.

The results were striking. In less than two years, we reduced out-of-state placements by 97 percent and congregate care by 67 percent and more than doubled foster care placement with relatives.

We did this in the face of significant cuts to our budget – an estimated $100 million over five years. By reducing the number of children in institutional care, we saved significant dollars, directing an estimated 79 cents out of every dollar we saved toward community settings and services.

This enabled us to work with primary care providers so that all youth under 19 can benefit from behavioral health and mental health services in state and in real time, benefitting over 2,300 youth to date. Additionally, we helped set up an emergency mobile psychiatric team of 150 trained mental health professionals that triages youth immediately and keeps them out of hospital settings. We worked to educate and engage parents about risky behaviors through the launch of public health awareness campaigns on safe sleep practices and shaken baby syndrome.

We made significant changes in our juvenile justice culture, where social workers used to be called parole officers and children were often locked up in maximum risk facilities for behavioral health issues. We had them work in closer proximity with families and CPS workers and trained them to better identify true risk and serve our children’s well-being. Before removing a child from the home and placing the youth in such facilities, our social workers were forced to consider a range of alternatives with removal being the last resort rather than the first.

We implemented an innovative recruitment model developed by St. Louis’ Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition that, using general, targeted and child specific recruitment, aims to improve permanency outcomes for children in care, with a focus on reconnecting youth with kin.

Just this month we launched Eckerd Rapid Safety Feedback (ERSF), an analytic tool used to identify child welfare cases with high risk of tragedy to then establish an action plan to mitigate the safety risks and prioritize tasks related to the case.

We established a hiring preference for social workers with BSW/MSW degrees and are working to revamp the hiring process to ensure we are onboarding the most qualified candidates.

Throughout all of these changes, I tried to convey to our social workers a broader vision about what we expect of children and families. This is challenging and traumatic work, and by empowering, supporting and training those on the front line, we were able to slowly shift the culture from one of blame to one in which we are all members of a team with the goal of making families stronger and children safer.

The innovative solutions we have implemented to improve our agency are bearing fruit.

A federal court monitor recently reported that our agency has “made and sustained progress” toward improving the state’s child welfare system.

On September 29, 2016, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced the first steps toward ending decades of federal oversight of the Connecticut’s DCF, with all but six of the 22 original required outcomes having been met and an expedited process for certifying compliance with the remaining outcomes in place.

“This important milestone toward exit from federal oversight represents a significant moment for Connecticut and most importantly is a real demonstration of the improvements made for our children and families,” Malloy said in a press release. “Trends are moving in the right direction – we’ve reduced the number of children in state care, increased the use of family and relative placements, and reduced our reliance on institutional settings.”

There is still work to be done. Our state child fatality rate is the third lowest in the nation but one death is one too many. We need to do more to address disproportionality and implicit bias in a system that impacts too many people of color. And the rise in opioid and heroin addiction is bringing new challenges to an already overloaded system.

As we continue to change the culture around child welfare, and change our relationship with families and communities, I believe we will continue to see gains. By recognizing the role of families as part of the solution rather than the problem, we are building on the vision and mission that the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities articulated in its groundbreaking report, and helping to strengthen families and better support the safety and wellbeing of our children.

Joette Katz
is Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, a former Associate Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, where she also served as the administrative judge for the state appellate system.

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