The state has taken custody of more than 860 children since 2011 because their families could not access or provide “specialized care” for their mental health or physical conditions, according to judicial department data.
The data show that the Department of Children and Families (DCF) has regularly used “uncared for” petitions, marked “specialized needs,” to take custody of children with severe behavioral problems, as a group of parents and lawyers alleged in a recent C-HIT story.
But while the parents’ group– now called Family Forward Advocacy CT — has complained that families are forced to give up custody as a way to access specialized out-of-home or intensive community mental health treatment, DCF officials said they use “uncared for” petitions only in rare cases where parents refuse to take their children home from hospitals or other emergency settings and to cooperate with recommended outpatient treatment.
On average over the last five years, three “uncared for-specialized needs” petitions have been filed each week in Connecticut, the data show. The annual total dropped from a high of 181 in 2013, to 120 in 2015. The data indicate that use of the petitions varies depending on location: New Haven courts had 172 such cases over five years, followed by Hartford (115) and Bridgeport (101), while Stamford had only 18 cases and Danbury had 23. The specialized needs petitions accounted for the majority of all “uncared for” petitions filed.
Under state law, children may be deemed “uncared for” when they are homeless, identified as victims of trafficking, or when their home “cannot provide the specialized care which the physical, emotional or mental condition of the child or youth requires.” Uncared for and neglect petitions are to be used when there is “reasonable cause” to believe that the child is suffering from serious physical illness or injury or is in immediate physical danger, and that “immediate removal from such surroundings is necessary to ensure the child’s safety.”
The Family Forward group has cited a number of cases in which parents were told by DCF or judicial officers that giving up custody through “uncared for” petitions was the only way to secure intensive or residential mental health treatment.
Their experiences run counter to a law passed in 1997 that says there is no requirement for DCF to “seek custody of any child or youth” with mental illness or other disorders “for the purpose of accessing an out-of-home placement or intensive outpatient services.” Commitment to DCF “shall not be a condition for receipt of services or benefits delivered or funded by the department,” the law says.
In 2004, former DCF Commissioner Darlene Dunbar directed agency staff not to file “uncared for” petitions or otherwise seek custody of children with mental health problems “for the sole purpose of accessing services for the child.” But in recent years, as budget cuts and a reorientation by DCF have brought steep reductions in group and institutional care, child welfare advocates say the practice has re-emerged.
In a statement this week, DCF said the agency “empathizes with any parent who feels overwhelmed with the responsibility to care for a child with behavioral health treatment needs,” but did not indicate that it would stop using “uncared for” petitions for children with severe mental health problems. The agency denied that it takes custody of children as a way to provide treatment or to leverage federal funding for such services, as the parents’ group has charged.
But just this week, Sherri Ryan, a mother from Plainville, reported that she was recently told by a DCF social worker from New Britain that she would have to give up custody of her 15-year-old son if she wanted to keep him in an out-of-home placement because that was “the only way DCF could get federal funds to continue his care.” She said DCF has been funding her son’s care through its Voluntary Services program, but that the worker said state funding would be ending.
“I don’t see how telling my son he’s not ours anymore is going to help him in any way,” she said of the boy she adopted through DCF at age 2. “It’s unreal.”
In its statement, DCF said it takes custody only in rare cases where parents dispute recommendations for in-home or outpatient care. DCF pointed out that there are “tens of thousands of children” who receive behavioral health services while remaining in their parents’ care – a priority of the department.
“Sadly, however, some families have made up their minds that their children require out of home care, despite clinical recommendations to the contrary,” the agency said. “Those families tend to notify us or other professionals that they will not take their children home and will not cooperate with recommended community-based or home-based treatment services. When that occurs, the Department will respond by educating the families about the many in-home and community-based services that we can provide.
“If the families continue to refuse to take their children home or to cooperate with recommended outpatient services, then we are left with no choice but to go to court to seek custody of the child so that we can provide them with a place to live and the community-based services and treatment they require.”
The C-HIT story cited a number of cases in which parents said they had exhausted in-home services provided through DCF and had pushed for specialized inpatient treatment because they feared for the safety of their other children. Some said their children had not improved after receiving multiple rounds of a DCF program known as IICAPS (Intensive In-home Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Services), which provides a few hours a week of in-home services.
In many cases, the parents said they agreed to give up custody to DCF after being told it was the way to access intensive services. Some who refused to take their children home from psychiatric emergency settings without an adequate treatment plan said that DCF threatened to charge them with abandonment or neglect.
None of the parents said they wanted to give up custody of their children, which entails giving up decision-making about care.
Many parents in the Family Forward group are adoptive parents of children who have been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, a complex condition stemming from early trauma. They said that while they understand DCF’s shift away from residential treatment, exceptions should be made for violent, unstable children who need specialized care.
DCF said it is following national best practices in reducing the number of children in residential care and expanding community outpatient and in-home treatment options. The agency said “a small number of children” may require facility-based care and that, for those children, DCF staff facilitate placements through the department’s Voluntary Services program, which does not require a legal commitment to DCF.
Some of the parents who ended up giving up custody said their requests to Voluntary Services for specialized or residential care were denied.
The parents’ group is lobbying state lawmakers to adopt new regulations that would prevent custody relinquishment from being used in cases where families seek specialized mental health services.