DCF and the poor: Is the system fair?

Kirsten Fauquet and John Stratzman, in their apartment in New London on Oct. 5, 2016, talk about their son "Dylan," who nearly died in a Groton foster home. (Deborah Straszheim/The Day)

This corrects a previous version   

The Department of Children and Families is seeking to terminate the parental rights of a New London couple whose son nearly died in a Groton foster home — an outcome, advocates say, that highlights the downward spiral of poor families who become trapped in the child welfare system.

Once poor parents become involved with DCF, they don’t have the legal resources to fight; they’re required to fix housing and financial problems to get their children back and there’s no public scrutiny or recourse if they feel they’re treated unfairly within the confines of private, juvenile court, advocates said.

“The confusion of poverty with neglect is the single biggest problem in American child welfare,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. Poor parents are more likely than middle-class parents to have their parental rights terminated because they’re more likely to have their children taken in the first place, he said.

DCF Ombudsman Ken Mysogland said children are not removed because of poverty. "Our department is not going to get involved in your family solely based on income," he said. "What we will investigate, regardless of the race, ethnicity, income status or family constellation, is when we have allegations that a child is being denied proper care and attention — physically, emotionally or morally — or is being abused."

DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt says "a small portion, a fraction of cases" result in removal of children. Half of the children removed from their homes later are reunited with their parents, he said. Decisions about removals longer than 96 hours are made by a judge, he said.

The department served 73,360 children in 2016 and had 2,310 children enter DCF care, or 3 percent of the total served. Of the substantiated investigations by DCF, 90 percent are for neglect and 10 percent are for abuse.

Children are removed from their homes only when services that could protect them have been exhausted, Mysogland said. If a family cannot afford services or lacks transportation, DCF provides those things, he said.

"All the services that are expected from the court that lead toward reunification (of a family) are either contracted services that the department receives state and federal funding for, and at no cost to the family, or we pay the cost if the family does not have the means," he said.

Others painted a different picture of what families experience.

Martin Guggenheim, a professor of law at New York University and co-director of the Family Defense Clinic, said the only children in foster care in the United States come from poor families. People turn a blind eye to the same behavior or inadequate parenting in middle-class neighborhoods, he said.

"Despite the rhetoric that children only be raised by adequate parents, we only apply that to one side of town," he said.

"With poor people, we regulate their lives much more closely. And we always pass the test that we didn't do this because of poverty. Because there is always something to pin it on beyond poverty," he said.

The process of terminating parental rights starts the moment children are removed from custody of their parents, said attorney Michael H. Agranoff, who worked in the juvenile system for 26 years representing families in cases against DCF. He said he is familiar with the New London case, though he could not comment on it directly.

“Even though you grew up thinking you are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, that doesn’t hold in DCF cases,” he said. Courts typically uphold orders of temporary custody because no judge wants a child injured or killed on his or her watch, Agranoff said.

Kirsten Fauquet and John Stratzman’s toddler son became the focus of attention last year after he nearly starved to death in foster care in November 2015. The child, one of five children removed from their home, has been in multiple homes since then.

Lisa Vincent, the lawyer representing Fauquet, said she would fight the petition to terminate parental rights.

'I had no money'

Gloria Short of Winsted lost her son to DCF custody when he was 9 years old.

“I was having some financial difficulty and my husband and I, our marriage was on the rocks,” she said. “My husband didn’t want to be married anymore, basically.” Her husband moved out of their house in Naugatuck, she lost her job and was facing eviction, she said.

Short doesn’t know who called DCF, but a caseworker arrived at her house and told her that her son should move in with his father because he had housing, she said.

“Because I was out of work, I had no money, they treated me like I was a criminal,” she said. “I said, ‘Well I’m taking my son with me (to a shelter), and they said, ‘No, you can’t.’”

She felt she had no choice but to send her son to live with his father, she said. She sold all of her belongings — bedroom set, living room furniture, pots and pans, everything but some clothes, dishes and utensils — and moved into a shelter.

About a month after the boy moved in with this father, there was an incident, she said, and the boy was removed from his father’s home, placed into DCF custody and brought to a residential placement in Waterford.

For years that followed, Short said she fought to get her son back, to no avail. She had multiple court-appointed lawyers, and eventually found housing in Waterbury and a job. But even with a one-bedroom apartment, the agency told her no, she said. Social workers said she needed a two-bedroom apartment so the boy could have his own room. She wanted to give him her room and sleep on the couch, she said.

She felt stressed “beyond comprehension,” she said.

“When I asked for help, as far as to get clothes, say if I needed furniture or something like that, they wouldn’t help me,” she said.

She was so distraught over losing her son that she sought counseling after the agency suggested it. It was used against her, she said. Short ultimately kept fighting and won back custody of her son when he was 15 years old. She said a caseworker warned her DCF still could take him at any time, words she'll never forget.

Her son is now 18 and living with her. He lived in group home settings while in DCF care and suffers from emotional trauma, she said.

Quality-assurance system

Mysogland said the agency does not remove children solely because of housing. 

"It's not the setting. It's the care and the conditions in which the children are being exposed to," he said. "These are hard issues, but I want to reiterate, when we look at you, as long as you can meet the core necessities of your child, food, clothing, education and medical, as well as meeting the emotional and psychological needs of your child, that's all we want."

The philosophy of working with families has changed over the years, "from a stern and directive approach to one now that is based on engagement and strengthening families," resulting in a dramatic decline in the number of children in care, he said.

DCF had 4,339 children in state care, including those committed as delinquent, as of Jan. 1, 2017. Ten years ago, the agency reported 7,007 in care, excluding youth committed as delinquent, he said.

Four years ago, DCF also began holding "considered removal" meetings with families, in which parents are invited to bring relatives, neighbors, pastors and others to develop a safety plan to keep their children, Mysogland said. The department has a new way of tracking families and places 40 percent in an "assessment" rather than "investigative" track, he said.

"Those children who have to be removed, as we have already said, are the most high-risk children, where their safety cannot be assured despite the extensive efforts the department has tried to make," he said. Even then, the agency continues to work with families to help them meet court requirements, he said.

The department was involved with 35,000 families in 2015, so some are bound to be upset with its work, he said. The agency also reviews cases.

"We acknowledge that there are circumstances whereby we do not have all the information, or reviewed the information in a light that was not intended, or in the wrong context, but that is why we have our quality-assurance system in place, to catch those cases to make sure they are kept on the right track," he said.

The longer DCF has a child, the harder it is to get the child back, Agranoff said. If the family is poor, it’s easier to show their situation is unstable, he said. Agranoff called the current representation of parents in child protection cases “horrible” and said the payment rate for court-appointed lawyers is at the heart of the problem.

Lawyers under contract with the public defender’s office are paid $500 for a DCF case, with additional $50 hourly payments for services such as visiting clients, attending DCF proceedings and preparing for trial.

“It’s like, if I told you, ‘Lady, go and clean 20 houses in the next two hours, and by the way, I’ll pay you $10,’ how good of a job are you going to do? The system is rigged against the poor,” Agranoff said.

He fought for the “mini-Miranda" law in Connecticut, which requires DCF to notify parents of their right to remain silent and their right to be represented by an attorney during DCF investigations. But, unlike criminal law, there’s no recourse for parents if it isn’t done, he said.

He believes Connecticut needs a “Parents Bill of Rights” to protect families and hold the agency more accountable, including opening up juvenile court to the public to allow reporting on its proceedings.

Emotional visits with children

Fauquet and Stratzman are seeking permission from the Office of the Claims Commissioner to sue the state on their son’s behalf. The department's care of their toddler son, who became known as "Baby Dylan," sparked outrage last year after DCF placed him in the care of an unlicensed relative and failed to act on warning signs that something was wrong, according to an investigation by the Office of the Child Advocate.

The Office of the Attorney General, which is handling the suit for DCF, has until Jan. 30 to reply to the request to sue, said Tara Dupont, paralegal with the Office of the Claims Commissioner.

But while the suit is pending, the DCF case in juvenile court continues. DCF workers told the parents and lawyers on Dec. 22 that they shortly would seek to terminate their parental rights. A petition to do so has not yet been filed. 

DCF initially removed four of Fauquet's children for reasons including concern about the family’s ability to pay rent, the mother’s mental health and conditions in the home, according to DCF paperwork on the case. The agency took Fauquet's fifth child shortly after she gave birth because it had taken the other children. They are in three different homes.

Fauquet and Stratzman both work full time and have lived in the same apartment for almost a year. Fauquet attends counseling sessions as the agency requires. Neither parent has a history of drug issues or criminal activity.

The case has become less about housing and more about the couple's psychological fitness and how they react to stress, said Vincent, the lawyer representing Fauquet.

She said several factors may hurt them: Fauquet has had multiple jobs and recently fell behind on the rent; the family did not get a housing subsidy due to failure to provide pay stubs and answer the door; Fauquet has argued with agency workers.

“The problem is that the more time that DCF spends looking at a family — like nobody is perfect — there’s always something to find,” Vincent said. “And Kirsten and John are a striking example of that. To say that judgments have been formed would be an understatement.”

DCF has argued that the family’s housing is unstable, that Fauquet has not rehabilitated from a mental health condition and that the parents aren’t ready to care for five children, Vincent said. She is Fauquet’s second lawyer.

“The standard is not that she has to be a proven danger, the standard is she has to have rehabilitated herself from the time the children were (removed),” Vincent said.

The couple must also demonstrate good parenting skills while being watched during emotional visits with the children. Fauquet and Stratzman are observed during weekly, two-hour visits with the children, who travel from three different places. The children are ages 5 years, 4 years, 3 years, 2 years, and 6 months.

“You get to these visits, you have all these emotions,” Vincent said. “You love your child, you miss your child, you’re desperate; you don’t know how you’re going to get out of the situation. How much parenting are you going to do?”

A preference for finality

Wexler, of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said mental health in such cases often still is a matter of socio-economic class. Even if the mother had a mental health condition, he questioned whether it could be controlled by medication or counseling, and whether it’s so dangerous, the parents should lose their parental rights forever.

“If there is a mental health condition, is DCF the cause of that condition? If someone takes away your child because you’re poor, your home is messy and you mouth off to caseworkers and then the child nearly starves to death in foster care, you might wind up with a mental health condition, too. Perhaps the cure is to finally get DCF out of this family’s life,” he said.

Agencies have limited time to work with families, whether they are impoverished or not. The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 aimed to move children more quickly into permanent homes, either through adoption or reunification with their parents.

The act requires state agencies to petition to terminate the parental rights of parents whose children have remained in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. Guggenheim, the New York University professor, said this system shows a preference for finality, however it’s achieved.

“We have destroyed more families through judicial decree, by legally declaring the families unrelated, over the objection of the parents, at a level that is unprecedented in the world. And we do it in the name of loving children,” he said.

Mysogland said DCF is part of a system with multiple parts. "We are not the child protective services system. We are the child protective services agency," he said. "And we operate within a context in our communities, with the schools and the police and the courts, and public and private attorneys and families themselves all working to protect children."

Fauquet said she’s been frustrated by what's happened to her family. She's had more than one job but she’s still paying the bills, she said. “They pretty much force themselves in every aspect of my life,” she said.

She admits she’s gotten angry at caseworkers. “I’ve called them monsters to their faces,” she said. “I’ve told them we’re nothing to them, this is just a job (for them), and they’re not the ones suffering."

“It’s not easy watching your children suffer when they just want to come home," she said. "My children are pretty much losing all hope. I get asked by my 5-year-old all the time, ‘Mommy, you still have spots for us, right?’”

d.straszheim@theday.com

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