The first of what is expected to become an annual report issued by the state Department of Children and Families on Dec. 30 documents the challenges of a foster care system struggling to meet the needs of the children it serves.
The DCF report, which was produced after a working group spent two years to find better ways to track the agency, documents trends over the past five years.
The numbers are troubling and the challenges complex, according to the report’s executive summary.
There is positive news, however. The report says the number of children adopted during the period studied has risen by more than 50% and aggressive hiring added 300 front-line social workers to the agency. Coupled with a drop in the number of children in the DCF system, those improvements have reduced caseloads “to historic low levels,” though still roughly 18 to 1.
The report also says the state has brought on a net gain of more than 300 new foster families in the past two years and is putting a priority on “kinship” homes, where a foster child stays with a relative. That arrangement tends to help children feel more comfortable and stable. The number of foster homes is constantly in flux, however, because more than 2,300 foster families stopped accepting children in the last two years, many of them because they had made permanent adoptions of children or faced other conditions that prompted them to leave the system.
Despite fewer children in the state’s care, the report says children stayed, on average, almost two years in the state’s care, up from 20 months just four years earlier. One in three children stays in DCF care for more than two years, and more than 1,000 have been in state care for more than four years, a dramatic increase since 2015.
The challenge of reuniting children with their families has been made harder by the opioid crisis, which has put more children in danger or abuse or neglect, and increased the number of parents unable to provide stable homes.
“Coinciding with the onset of the opioid crisis, children in foster care spiked in 2014,” the report says.
The demand for qualified foster families has been and will always be a major focus for DCF. But in the last four years DCF has reduced the number of children removed from homes and placed in foster care. The declines are attributed, in part, to policy changes that “increase the quantity, quality and frequency of information the department reviews, which supports better decision-making as to the most appropriate intervention for families.”
In other words, more and better information and communication are leading to better decisions about whether to take children from their homes and put them in foster care.
The report points to ways DCF has strengthened its services, including mandatory training for social workers transitioning to the foster care unit; opening better lines of communication with foster parents; establishment of a pilot program to find more relatives to serve as foster parents; and creation of 15 social worker positions to recruit new foster parents.
Critics can point to DCF’s failures in recent years, but this report is introspective and shows the agency is trying to examine its shortcomings and make the changes needed to provide the vital monitoring and protection of children, whether they are with their families, in “kinship” settings, in foster care or headed toward adoption into new, permanent, families.