A new task force will examine trading custody for care

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HB 5190, An Act Extending the Reporting Deadline of the Task Force To Study Voluntary Admission To DCF, passed Connecticut’s General Assembly and was signed by the governor earlier this month with little fanfare. Advocates who pushed for the bill and the creation of the task force last session know its value. It’s about family and school safety, access to treatment options for kids with complex brain disorders, adverse childhood experiences and autism with co-occurring mental illness early, when appropriate treatment delivers benefit.

Parents routinely labor for special education services and insurance benefit coverage, but too often they’re directed to DCF’s Voluntary Services program to access what other child-serving systems deny. That’s when trading custody presents as an “option” and voluntary admission to DCF can become a punitive and costly process for parents, and a traumatizing, dangerous experience for troubled kids. One cohort hit especially hard by this are adoptive families.

Adoptive parents welcome into their lives infants and broken little angels as bundles of joy, believing that love will “fix” all. Prospective parents are told behavioral challenges in the very young will minimize through healthy nurturing and having their basic needs consistently met. Excited parents believe they can clear the hurdles of early childhood trauma; that their unconditional affection will overcome any sadness, fear or anxieties these adorable, longing, children harbor.

But when kids are profoundly impaired by adverse childhood experiences, when they suffer intense symptoms of attachment disruption and normal brain processing is impeded, is love enough?

And where do parents turn when their minor child’s chaotic and unsafe behaviors and emotional crises peak, and their own waves of fear and helplessness escalate?

Regardless of adoption type (state system, private, domestic, kinship, international), for these forever parents who experience the harrowing, extreme-side of raising a traumatized child, the answer is nowhere.

Unfortunately, these situations are viewed like any other child protection case. Parents are viewed as inept. They are frequently blamed for the child’s behavioral “challenges.” Cries for assistance to access treatment are often mocked and they’re documented as neglectful. In a broken child welfare system, these dedicated families are demonized, denied assistance and mechanically urged to place their disturbed child in state custody. Forever families are disrupted in favor of foster care. This is true of the DCF Voluntary Services doorway as well.

Trauma-informed care is big news in therapeutic communities. Watered down treatment models modified for outpatient use are touted as the (cost-effective) answer. The expectation is that if you engage a traumatized child in these treatments, and their home life is safe, secure, structured and consistent (foster care), the child will “get better.” Yet, this is rarely true. Like war-torn veterans with PTSD, not all traumatized kids suffer from the same, one-size-fits-all, malady.

What these parents want is to help their child heal; keep their family safe and cohesive. To be heard and validated and to access professional treatment programs with individualized care. They expect the same reaction to their pursuit of mental illness treatment as a parent of a child with cancer, muscular dystrophy or diabetes. Parental condemnation by DCF, serving as a portal to child protection-guided care, is an artificial barrier that leads to missed opportunities to treat and encourages child abandonment. The research is clear – early proficient intervention prevents long term disabling mental disorders that could dominate a lifespan.

What is true is that in Connecticut, as many as three children a week lose their parents through ‘custody for care;’ and with custody transfer parents lose decision-making authority over their child.

Authority is redirected to state agency employees for basic needs, medical, educational, pharmaceutical, and, of course, mental health. Parent’s hands are tied. Child and parent become dominated by DCF objectives and practices, and connectivity is threatened.

Many parents, exhausted and humiliated, stand to lose their parental rights permanently as well. What parents are not told upfront is that child neglect policies prevail in all custody transfer cases.

The Special Act 17-6 Task Force will examine DCF Voluntary Services policies and practices, juvenile court mechanisms and special education systems where they intersect, drive and inform access to care; the science and the impact. It will consider the unmet needs of these kids by Connecticut’s child-serving systems which lead to the child protection response default.

Unmet complex needs in kids can lead to juvenile criminal behavior, costly social challenges like teen pregnancy and homelessness, and yes, school shootings. The shock isn’t that they happen. The shock is that systems fail young kids with warning signs and complex conditions, and their families, routinely.

To learn more about this subject, read this article by the Connecticut Health Investigative Team.

Maureen A. O’Neill-Davis is the Public Policy Advocate for Family Forward Advocacy CT.


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