Katz's courage bodes well for Connecticut's children

Joette Katz was right to refuse to let a child-abuse tragedy deter her from her reform agenda at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. And The Day was right to support her courageous stand.

As The Day pointed out in its June 18 editorial, "No person or agency can be right 100 percent of the time in trying to predict outcomes in volatile homes." Yet all across the country, less gutsy child-welfare leaders have abandoned reforms and run for cover in response to a high-profile death of a child "known to the system."

Katz, in contrast, is standing behind an agenda that not only is better for children's well-being, but also safer than the take-the-child-and-run approach that has dominated Connecticut child welfare for decades.

One look beyond the horror stories explains why. Contrary to the common stereotype, most parents who lose their children to foster care are neither brutally abusive nor hopelessly addicted. Far more common are cases in which a family's poverty has been confused with child "neglect." Other cases fall between the extremes, the parents neither all victim nor all villain.

That helps explain the findings of two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases. In such cases children left in their own homes typically fared better even than comparably maltreated children left in foster care.

Several other studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, a rate far higher than official estimates, which involve agencies investigating themselves. The record of group homes and institutions is even worse. Connecticut over uses such congregate care at one of the highest rates in the nation.

The more that case workers are overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases and children needlessly removed from everyone they know and love, the less time these workers have to find children in real danger - and that's almost always the real reason for the horror stories.

None of this means that Connecticut should never take a child from her or his parents. Rather, it means that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that states should use sparingly and in small doses. But Connecticut has been prescribing mega-doses of foster care, tearing apart families at a rate more than 45 percent above the national average (a figure that takes into account child poverty levels in each state).

In contrast to the dismal results from over using foster care, every study of "differential response," diverting cases believed to be less serious to agencies providing help instead of investigations, as the new commissioner plans to do, has found no compromise of child safety; and several have found that safety improved.

When children must be taken away the research is overwhelming that another of Katz's priorities, placing children with relatives, is more stable, better for children's well-being and, most importantly, safer than what should properly be called "stranger care."

Sadly, the tragedy in Ansonia won't be the last. Eventually DCF will divert a case it should have investigated and something will go horribly wrong. That's when Connecticut's vast network of private providers - agencies that have grown fat and happy getting paid for every day they hold children in their group homes and institutions - will come out of the woodwork, fingers wagging, trying to scapegoat reform. That's when they'll try to use the horror story to claim that a pendulum that has yet to swing at all has swung too far.

And that's when it will be even more important for the people of Connecticut to refuse to be suckered in and for Commissioner Katz to stay the course.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. NCCPR's report on Connecticut child welfare is available at: http://bit.ly/ftcARP.

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