Last May, Samantha Collins’ drug use, legal problems and dealings with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families forced her to strike a bargain with the agency. In return for allowing social workers to come into her home three times a week to help her stay off drugs, improve her parenting and learn the practical skills needed to function as an adult, DCF would not remove her children. The 26-year-old Somers mother of 2- and 7-year-old boys entered Family-Based Recovery, a program created 10 years ago by DCF, the agency better known, perhaps, for separating families than working to keep them together. Family-Based Recovery, or FBR, is an example of DCF’s dramatic reversal in philosophy and practices, after years of a policy approach based largely on removing children thought to be at risk and placing them in congregate care facilities. “‘Pull and ask later,’” said Kristina Stevens, a former DCF social worker who is now administrator of the agency’s Clinical and Community Consultation and Support Division, which includes a fast-growing array of in-home treatment programs.
As recently as 2011, nearly 1,500 children and youths were separated from their families and were living in 54 group homes and other treatment centers in and out of Connecticut.
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.
A new report that identifies the most distinctive cause of injury death for each state, compared to national rates, has some findings that might be expected:
Seven states in Appalachia and the Southwest, for example, had unintentional firearms deaths roughly two to four times the national rate. Those states have high gun ownership rates and lack safe-storage laws. Three states – Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska – had as their most distinctive injury motor vehicle crashes involving passengers. Four safety provisions – primary seatbelt laws, mandatory key ignition locks for drunk drivers, booster seats, and nighttime driving restrictions for teens – are absent in Montana, while South Dakota and Nebraska have only one each. Connecticut had as its most distinctive cause of injury death “unintentional suffocation” – the only state with that outlier cause.
While the number of youths in Connecticut who die by suicide has declined since 2007, the average age of the children who kill themselves has decreased from 17 to just over 14, and the percentage of youths who report self-injury or feelings of hopelessness has risen in recent years, according to a new report by the Office of the Child Advocate. In the new Public Health Alert, Child Advocate Sarah Eagan urged, “We must sound the alarm about the prevalence of youth anguish and despair . . . We must ensure that a helping hand is part of every child’s life, and that no child or family suffers in silence.”
Her office and the state’s Child Fatality Review Panel called for increased screening of youths for depression and suicidal thoughts by health care providers and schools, expanded access to “timely and effective” clinical care, and an annual child fatality legislative hearing to address child deaths and prevention strategies.
Legislative changes and increased training of school staff could help to reduce the incidence of children being restrained and secluded in schools, a panel of state officials said Friday at a forum hosted by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. The roundtable discussion was organized in response to a February report by the state Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) that raised “significant concern” about the frequency with which young children with autism and other disabilities are restrained or secluded in Connecticut schools. In each of the last three years, the state Department of Education has reported about 30,000 incidents of restraints or seclusion, with autistic students the most frequently subjected to the practices. More than 1,300 children have been injured while restrained or isolated. Research has shown that the techniques can be traumatizing to children, with no evidence that they have therapeutic value, the OCA report says.
A 4-year-old boy identified with a developmental delay was physically restrained by school staff after he “threw (puzzle) pieces on the floor and across the room” while playing with a puzzle on a classroom rug. An elementary school student was put into seclusion after “swinging her coat at staff.”
These are among hundreds of incidents — deemed “emergencies” by school personnel — that warranted restraining and isolating pre-school and elementary school students in Connecticut last year. A new report by the state Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) raises “significant concern” regarding the frequency with which young children with autism and other disabilities are restrained or secluded; lapses in documentation or actual compliance with state laws; and the prevalence of “unidentified and unmet educational needs for children subject to forceful or isolative measures.”
The OCA report, released Wednesday, reviewed records of restraints and seclusions for 70 students at seven public schools and special education programs around the state, including Hartford and Fairfield County. Those students, chosen randomly, were restrained 1, 065 times and placed in seclusion 703 times. In a number of cases, the report found, there was no documentation showing that the children had received requisite behavioral evaluations, or that educators had monitored and reviewed cases of repeated seclusions, as required.
In a town somewhere in Connecticut last year, a 6-month-oldboy was fed late one night. His mother fell asleep, and when she awoke, she assumed the baby had been put in his swing by his father, as was usual after the baby ate. But the baby hadn’t been moved, and a few hours later, the parents discovered him swaddled tightly, face down in their bed. The baby’s cause of death was classified as undetermined by the state Child Review Fatality Panel, which is charged with examining unexpected deaths of children under the age of 18 who have previously come into contact with state services. But as State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said at a recent legislative forum, babies “don’t just die from what we used to call crib death.” Amid the state’s tragic infant and toddler homicides and horrific cases of abuse, a sad number of infant and toddler deaths are entirely preventable simply by paying attention to the place that should be the safest, where they sleep.
Child deaths in families involved with the state Department of Children and Families are more likely in cases where agency workers have spent less time assessing and interacting with parents, a preliminary review by the agency indicates. In recent legislative testimony, a DCF official said that an ongoing review of 248 cases – half in which a child under the age of 4 had died, and half in which there was no fatality – had turned up a number of “risk factors,” including the young age of parents, addiction and mental health problems, and a lack of “quality” contact with DCF social workers. “We found that, in the comparison or control cases (where no fatalities occurred), we were assessing parents more, we were visiting parents more. The quality of home visits were more of (high) quality than those in which fatalities had occurred,” DCF research supervisor Janet Gonzalez told members of the Committee on Children. That finding “feeds one of our recommendations, in regards to enhancing the assessments that we do of families in the home,” she said.
A preliminary review by the Office of the Child Advocate of conditions at the state’s controversial locked treatment program for troubled girls in Middletown raises concerns about the improper use of restraints, inadequate access to mental health services, and inconsistent reporting of abuse and neglect. The report, which was distributed to members of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) Advisory Committee and obtained by the Connecticut Health I-Team, cites concerns that youths in both the 12-bed girls’ Pueblo Unit and the larger CJTS facility for boys have been subjected to inappropriate or unsafe restraint, including the use of “prone restraint” on youths with respiratory problems. Prone restraint means that a person is laid in a facedown position. “I know that DCF (the Department of Children and Families) shares our concern regarding the use of potentially dangerous restraint for children with contraindicated medical conditions,” Child Advocate Sarah Eagan wrote. “Our review of these incident reports raises questions regarding the adequacy of staff training on the use of restraint (and de-escalation strategies), and the effective dissemination of critical information regarding children’s special health care needs.”
The report echoes concerns about the CJTS’ use of restraint that were cited in a report a decade ago by the former child advocate and attorney general’s office. The new review comes just six months after the girls’ facility opened — and as state agencies seek to reduce the unnecessary use of restraint among children.
An 8-week-old baby boy slips out of his sleeping grandmother’s arms and suffocates in the folds of a couch. A 7-week-old girl is found dead lying on her stomach in her mother’s bed, where she had been placed to sleep, as a nearby crib sat unused. These are two of 23 infants who died in Connecticut last year of “sudden infant death syndrome” or undetermined causes. Of those cases, 18 were found to have risk factors associated with the sleep environment, including co-sleeping in an adult bed with parents, sleeping with a heavy blanket or pillows, or being placed on their stomachs. In a public health alert issued Monday, the Office of the Child Advocate and the Connecticut Child Fatality Review Panel warned that the number of Connecticut infants who died between 2001 and 2013 in cases involving unsafe sleep conditions was almost three times higher than the number of infants who died from child abuse.