The legislature’s Committee on Children has proposed creating a task force to study the state’s so-called “custody for care” controversy, in place of a bill that would have barred the Department of Children and Families (DCF) from pushing parents to relinquish custody when seeking inpatient mental health treatment for their children. If approved, the task force would study the issue of why DCF takes over custody of children in some cases in which parents cannot meet their children’s severe behavioral health needs in a home setting. C-HIT has reported that the state uses “uncared for/specialized needs” petitions to take children into DCF custody in cases where parents argue for inpatient treatment or refuse to take their children home from hospital emergency rooms, for fear they will harm themselves, siblings or others. While DCF officials have said that custody relinquishment is used rarely, judicial department data show the state has used the petitions to take custody of more than 860 children over five years – or an average of three children a week. A bill drafted by state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, prompted by an October C-HIT story, would have prohibited DCF from “requesting or requiring” that parents relinquish their custodial rights when seeking specialized mental health treatment for their children.
The state’s efforts to direct children in mental health crisis away from emergency rooms, to other services, have fallen short, with major hospitals reporting staggering increases in patient visits since 2013: Up 32 percent at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and 81 percent at Yale New Haven Hospital. The children’s hospital (CCMC) reported nearly 3,300 visits last year – 275 a month, on average — with the average length of stay increasing to 15 hours from less than 12 in 2013. “I wish I could say we had made a lot of progress, but we haven’t,” said Dr. Steve Rogers, medical director of the emergency department’s (ED’s) behavioral health unit. “Unfortunately, I think it’s only going to keep trending this way.”
Similarly, Yale saw ED visits by children ages 15 and younger rise from fewer than 750 in 2013 to more than 1,350 in 2016 — and the numbers are running even higher this year, said Dr. Claudia Moreno, medical director for psychiatric emergencies in Yale’s children’s emergency department. At times, she said, all ED beds are full, and children wait on hallway gurneys.
State officials and parent advocates gave different versions Tuesday of how often, and why, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) takes custody of children with severe behavioral health problems – and whether the practice should continue. Advocates, including a group of adoptive parents, told the legislature’s Committee on Children that a proposed bill that would prohibit DCF from “requesting, recommending or requiring” that parents relinquish their custodial rights when seeking mental health treatment for their children is needed to stop a practice known as ‘trading custody for care.’ The bill, drafted by state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, was prompted by an October C-HIT story that described DCF’s use of “uncared for” custody petitions against parents who could not manage their children at home and insisted on specialized residential care. In testimony Tuesday, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said the agency resorts to taking over custody only in rare cases in which parents refuse to take their children home from inpatient settings or “will not cooperate” with clinician-recommended in-home or community-based treatment services. “We disagree with the notion that DCF requires parents to completely relinquish custody of their children” to receive suitable behavioral health care, Katz said. She acknowledged that the agency has sharply reduced the number of children it places in residential treatment.
Ten years have gone by, but Lisa Vincent and her son, Jose, flash back to their goodbye with fresh anguish and faltering voices. He is 21 now, but the 11-year-old boy he was back then easily re-surfaces, all anger and confusion. “I didn’t understand. I was under the assumption I was going back to her,” Jose says. “For a long time, I felt that whole ‘she gave up on me like everyone else did.’ Now, I realize it wasn’t her.