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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Child advocate: Connecticut's child welfare system needs changes

    New London — Child Advocate Sarah Eagan says three changes should be made priorities to improve the state child welfare system after the near death of a toddler in a Groton foster home.

    The Office of the Child Advocate made 20 recommendations as part of an investigative report released Oct. 4 about circumstances that led to the near starvation and abuse of an 18-month-old boy removed from his parents’ home in New London.

    Of the report’s recommendations, Eagan deemed three as the most crucial.

    First, that the Department of Children and Families create a tool, similar to a health and safety checklist, to assess the well-being of infants and toddlers, and have supervisors review it with caseworkers every 14 days.

    Second, that state law require DCF to file in Juvenile Court a report on a child’s well-being, treatment needs and timetable for meeting those needs within 60 days of a child coming into state care.

    Third, that state law mandate the department submit to the court, within 30 days of the agency taking temporary custody or guardianship of a child, an assessment of the suitability and licensing potential of the child’s caretaker.

    “It’s not taking away DCF’s authority to license homes, but makes them explain why they made that decision,” Eagan said.

    The investigative report on the toddler, whom it refers to as “Dylan,” found multiple failures across the child welfare system. The caseworker assigned to the child did not see him awake for 102 days; the lawyer representing the child didn't request DCF records and filed no motions on his behalf; and the agency placed Dylan with a couple despite information that the foster mother previously had been cited for neglect, her husband had a criminal history, both had health issues and both their drivers’ licenses were indefinitely suspended.

    The foster mother, Crystal Magee of Groton, was charged in February with risk of injury to a minor and cruelty to persons, both felonies.

    State Rep. Diana Urban, co-chair of the Committee on Children, said she supports Eagan’s general suggestions but doesn’t believe more laws are the answer. Urban said she would rather expand on the information the court already receives.

    “I don’t want to keep making more individual laws, because more individual laws tend to get lost,” Urban said. The various agencies must discuss how to best put changes into practice, she said.

    "You're not dealing with 10 people, you're not dealing with 50 people, you're dealing with more than 3,000 people (in DCF) and the amount of kids we touch, you're dealing with 4,000 kids a year," she said. "Things that seem so simple, aren't."

    State Sen. Danté Bartolomeo, a Meriden Democrat and co-chair of the Committee on Children, wrote in an email that she, Urban and ranking members of the committee recently met with the Office of the Child Advocate and the Department of Children and Families to review the report on Dylan.

    Eagan had members of her staff attend, as did DCF Commissioner Joette Katz, Bartolomeo said. The legislators met for several hours and discussed the case with the agencies in detail, she said.

    "There is no question that a close review by the committee of the handling of Baby Dylan's case is warranted," Bartolomeo said. "The committee leadership and the agencies agreed that, at the start of the next session, DCF would make a formal presentation before the entire Committee on Children, so that all members would have the opportunity to ask questions about procedures and circumstances pertinent to the case, as well as inquire about recommendations in the (investigative) report."

    "From that point, the committee will determine what, if any, legislative changes are appropriate and necessary," she said.

    Urban said she plans to call legislative hearings to discuss the case. Katz said DCF is adding to the information the court receives.

    “Instead of saying, ‘Bad DCF. Bad, bad, bad.’ The relationship is, ‘Hey look, this is what has come forward with this. Twelve social workers touched this (case).' So we’re able to have conversations. That’s what I feel is so important,” Urban said. “Instead of everyone accusing everyone of being bad and not doing their job."

    Under state law, the Department of Children and Families has 90 days to respond to the findings in Eagan's report.

    DCF, in a statement, responded to Eagan's recommendations.

    “The Department has made far-reaching improvements in our work with children and families over the last six years by working with children, families, and communities in a more collaborative manner," the statement said. "We take very seriously our responsibility to continuously find ways to improve and we welcome the participation of the legislature, especially the Children’s Committee, and the Office of the Child Advocate in our shared effort to protect children and support their well-being.”

    Eagan said the recommendations are meant to add safeguards to prevent what took place in the Dylan case. Reviewing cases involving babies and toddlers every 14 days would prevent a supervisor from realizing months later that a child was asleep every time the case worker visited, Eagan said.

    Sharing information with the court would create another check and balance, to ensure that when children are placed with relatives, the home has been assessed and is suitable, Eagan said. Magee is a cousin of the child’s mother.

    “Part of what got missed here was that nobody seemed to be informed that the foster parents had (child protective services) history, that a waiver was required,” she said.

    Eagan said she supports the use of relative foster homes but wants to make sure they are appropriately screened. The change would allow DCF to continue to license the homes but prompt the agency to explain its decisions, she said.

    The third change — requiring the agency to submit documents to the court about a child’s needs and a time frame for meeting those needs — would let people know about upcoming medical or other appointments, she said.

    During the five months Dylan lived with the Magees, he received almost no medical follow up, almost no developmental supports and no structured child care, the report said. One provider called or spoke with DCF nine times, often saying the foster parents canceled appointments or would not let her into their home.

    “It puts it on people’s radar so that everybody gets the information,” Eagan said. “The lawyer gets the information, the judge gets the information and when people come back, they can ask about (it).”

    d.straszheim@theday.com

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