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    Friday, June 14, 2024

    Children, parents in limbo as child welfare agency, courts adapt to crisis

    Ted Dorsey III of Waterford hasn't seen his two sons since the beginning of March, and he's skeptical about his Department of Children and Families social worker's suggestion that he try virtual visits to their foster home until the coronavirus passes through.

    "I'm like, are you kidding me, with a 3-year-old who can't sit still, and a 1-year old?" Dorsey said by phone last week.

    A Ledyard mother and father were crushed to learn the final court hearing to adopt a 9-year-old girl, scheduled for this past Monday, has been postponed indefinitely since state courts have limited business during the outbreak. They said they would have gladly connected to a Juvenile Court judge online if that was an option.

    Across the state in Litchfield County, a mother who can't visit her daughter in a foster home said she fears the child will forget her. She said she has been fulfilling all of DCF's requirements to regain custody.

    The Day spoke with several families this past week who were worried that the coronavirus, which prompted halted parental visits with children in foster homes and other placements, and delayed hearings for kids who have been removed from their homes, has put children in the care of DCF in a damaging state of limbo.

    Some, like Dorsey, were willing to use their names, but others asked not to be identified to protect their children's identity.

    Child protection attorney Lisa M. Vincent said last week she is exploring ways to challenge Gov. Ned Lamont's executive orders that extend the 10-day deadline for hearings when children are removed from their families and prohibit families from visiting their children. Judges can still hear removal cases at their discretion, but only two juvenile courts remain open in the state.

    Chief Court Administrator Patrick J. Carroll III said last week that the Judicial Branch recognizes the disruption that restricted court activity will create but drastic measures had to be taken to help mitigate the pandemic.

    "I had explained to a lot of my clients last week that this is a statewide emergency," Vincent said. "It's a public health crisis. There's not much we can do to challenge it."

    DCF Commissioner Vannessa L. Dorantes said in a phone interview that the department is working hard to protect the 4,000 children in the department's care, as well as its 3,200 employees. The agency had distributed 1,500 laptops to its employees, since documentation in the field is a crucial part of its mission, prior to the coronavirus crisis, and since has distributed 6,000 more, Dorantes said. Parents with children in care can no longer visit foster homes and agency-operated psychiatric facilities, but the agency is working to ensure that families can connect remotely.

    There has been no increase in the number of Connecticut children removed from their homes, but school closures and social distancing are still new, she said. While many have gone remote, some staff have been deemed essential, in order to be able to work in the community, in recognition that "the duration of this is so prolonged and intensity is unpredictable," Dorantes said.

    "One thing that worries me at this point is that because the majority of our mandated reporters come from schools and health care providers, we see a significant decrease in the number of calls to our care line," she said.

    There's been an increase in the number of calls to the state's catch-all social services line, 211, so the state has to "tune into families that are in need in a different way and to almost predict what is going to happen," Dorantes said.

    As DCF mobilized to work under the new circumstances, the virus arrived in its midst. The first confirmed case last week involved an administrative staff member at a Torrington office who Dorantes said was not hospitalized and is in good health. In the past week, DCF staff from offices in New Britain, Meriden and Milford have tested positive for COVID-19 — the disease caused by the virus — along with a staff member from the agency's Albert J. Solnit North residential treatment center in East Windsor. The staff member had no contact with children at the facility, according to spokesman Gary Kleeblatt.

    "When a staff person tests positive, we trace back all their contacts and close the office to do a thorough cleaning," Kleeblatt said by phone Monday. "We will reopen the offices shortly and our staff continue to do their jobs, many of them remotely."

    Dorantes is part of a state command team that is working with Gov. Lamont to address the crisis. 

    "I think it gives us an opportunity to test our system, to be innovative and do the things we are charged to do," Dorantes said. "To do things we are not as comfortable to get our needs met."

    k.florin@theday.com

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