Task Force To Examine So-Called ‘Custody For Care’ Controversy

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A task force created by state lawmakers will examine whether the Department of Children and Families (DCF) should be prohibited from requiring that parents give up custody of their children in order to access mental health and other services, under legislation signed by the governor.

The newly formed panel, which is charged with reporting its recommendations by Feb. 1, 2018, will study whether state statutes should be amended to prohibit DCF from requiring or requesting that a parent or guardian of a youth admitted to DCF on a voluntary basis terminate his or parental rights or transfer custody in order to obtain services. The task force also will study ways of increasing families’ access to voluntary services without making parents relinquish custody of their children.

The legislation creating the task force was prompted by recent stories by C-HIT that detailed a practice known as ‘trading custody for care,’ in which parents who cannot meet their children’s severe behavioral health needs in a home setting are subject to “uncared for” petitions that turn their children over to DCF custody. Often, they have lost custody after arguing for inpatient treatment or refusing to take their children home from hospital emergency rooms.

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz has said the agency resorts to taking over custody only in rare cases in which parents refuse to take their children home from hospitals or “will not cooperate” with clinician-recommended home-based treatment services. But some parents across the state have described being told by DCF and court workers that the only way to access specialized out-of-home care for their children was to relinquish custody.

Judicial department data show that the state has used “uncared for” petitions to take custody of more than 860 children over five years – or an average of three children a week.

Parent advocates have said a key problem underlying the custody issue is that DCF’s in-home treatment services are often not sufficient to help severely troubled children. The department approves facility-based or residential care only for a small number of children in its voluntary services program.

The task force proposal calls for increasing the number and capacity of service providers to meet the needs of children in DCF’s voluntary services program. The 20-member panel of child advocates and custody experts is to meet monthly.

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