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Child advocate paints disturbing picture of DCF

Hartford — About 90 percent of the records entered into the Department of Children and Families database about licensing the Groton foster home in which a New London child nearly starved in 2015 were electronically date-stamped the day after the child was hospitalized, indicating they were entered after the fact, the state child advocate told the state legislative Committee on Children in Hartford on Tuesday.

Child Advocate Sarah Eagan and DCF Commissioner Joette Katz testified before the committee on what became known last year as the “Baby Dylan” case. Eagan drew an audible gasp from committee members when she said the toddler child, who was 19 months old when he was brought to the hospital, had untreated broken bones in both arms and weighed 17 pounds after spending five months in the unlicensed foster home.

DCF placed Dylan with his biological mother’s cousin despite information that she previously had been cited with neglect, her husband has a criminal history including a prior conviction for assault, that both adults had "health issues" and both adults' driver's licenses indefinitely were suspended, a report by the Office of the Child Advocate found last year.

Due to the couple’s prior history with DCF and the justice system, the licensing unit was required to get a waiver from the commissioner to place Dylan in the home. But workers didn’t seek one, Eagan said. DCF’s quality-assurance unit later rated the quality of the foster home a “strength” despite the absence of any electronic licensing records, she said.

After the Baby Dylan case, Eagan said her office conducted an in-depth review of 11 cases involving placement of children age 7 or younger in homes where waivers were required.

In five instances, the foster parent had criminal involvement within the last five years; six cases involved substantiated findings of abuse or neglect by DCF, she said. Yet that information, as in Dylan’s case, often was not shared with the juvenile court responsible for overseeing the cases, she said.

The review also found that all of the foster homes were rated as a “strength” of the family’s case plan, “even where safety concerns were present in the record,” Eagan said.

As an example, in one case the foster home was rated a strength even though the foster mother recently had tested positive for cocaine, she said. In another instance, a home was rated a strength despite “extensive history of the foster father with domestic violence,” including restraining orders with multiple partners and a recent DCF investigation related to domestic violence, she said.

However, Eagan said her office also found multiple cases where a foster parent with a prior criminal history provided nurturing care to a child. She said her office strongly supports the state's moving in the direction of placing children with relatives and a process for seeking waivers if they are needed.

But she said those waivers should be granted only when the caregiver is assessed, determined to be rehabilitated and this information is shared with juvenile court.

Committee members also learned Tuesday that DCF employees continued to make errors even after Dylan was removed from the home where he nearly starved and the case came to light. Eagan confirmed that the toddler was placed in taxi cabs alone when he was 20 to 22 months old to travel to visits with his siblings.

“I was frankly floored,” she said. He was placed in cabs unaccompanied 15 times, she said.

DCF case managers had to call around to different taxi services to find one willing to allow a child under age 5 to travel unaccompanied, she said. Eagan said she contacted the DCF ombudsman, who contacted others in the agency who were equally appalled by the situation, she said.

Katz told committee members that the case of Baby Dylan was “unacceptable” and she offers no excuses, only apologies.

“We fully agree with the (Office of the Child Advocate) that the case practice in this matter was unacceptable,” she said. Two employees involved in the case are no longer with DCF and two others were significantly disciplined, she said.

The agency also thoroughly has examined the case and used it as an opportunity to apply lessons learned in its ongoing quality-assurance activities, she said.

But Katz said she doesn’t believe an entire system can be defined by one case or even a handful of cases.

“To conclude that the performance of a handful of employees in one case means that there’s massive system failure, I think, both misleads the public into assuming that all the issues identified in here exist statewide or that DCF has not made tremendous progress in the many facets of child welfare over the last six years,” she said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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