Child Welfare Advocates Take Legal Action in Connecticut to Block Closure of Key Foster Care Prevention Program

HARTFORD, CT — A successful and widely used program aimed at keeping vulnerable families together — and their children out of foster care — will be shuttered if recent spending reductions made unilaterally by Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell are allowed to stand, according to a motion filed in federal court late last night by the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights and local co-counsel, asking a judge to block the cuts.

Connecticut’s Voluntary Services Program, which for more than 18 years has offered specialized treatment for children at risk of entering state custody due to serious mental, emotional, or behavioral problems, was spared in the budget passed by the state legislature on August 31, 2009 — but has since been targeted in a budget rescission by Governor Rell that halted new intakes into the program as of this week.

According to attorneys representing Connecticut’s abused and neglected children, the move not only places countless children at risk of irreparable harm, but also violates the terms of the state’s 1991 settlement of a class action brought by Children’s Rights to reform Connecticut’s dysfunctional Department of Children and Families (DCF).

“For the sake of small, short-term cost savings, Governor Rell and DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton are shutting down a critical program that has kept thousands of children together with their families since it was created by the settlement of the child welfare reform class action,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “When these children must be committed to state custody to get the same services, and as their untreated problems worsen, the financial cost to the state will rise and the human cost to the children and their families will be devastating.”

The issue is so important that the Connecticut state legislature passed a law in 1997 prohibiting the commitment of children to state custody just so they can receive mental health services.

“That’s exactly what’s going to happen if these services are not protected, and countless families will be torn apart as a result when their children are needlessly placed in foster care just so they can get the services that the Voluntary Services Program could have provided,” Lustbader said. “We are committed to fighting these cuts and ensuring that Connecticut’s vulnerable children receive the services they are guaranteed by law before commitment to state custody is the only option remaining.”

The Voluntary Services Program serves approximately 1,000 children on any given day, and several hundred new children enter the program each year. Suspending intakes will leave many families with no other source for the services it provides, according to Children’s Rights’ motion, denying vulnerable children access to vital services and supports when they need it most.

According to an affidavit filed in support of today’s legal action by Martha Stone, executive director of Connecticut’s Center for Children’s Advocacy, “Many children will go without desperately needed mental health services and will suffer severe deterioration as a result, placing the family at risk of not being able to properly care for the child and forcing some families to have to place their child into DCF custody just to the same services can be provided.”

Stone’s affidavit cites the stories of several children whose lives have been profoundly affected by the services provided through the Voluntary Services Program, including:

  • Justin, a young boy who had been diagnosed by the age of seven with several severe mental health disorders that afflicted him with hallucinations, multiple personalities, and uncontrollable thoughts of suicide. Although his parents lacked the resources to get Justin the treatment he needed, the Voluntary Services Program provided counseling and therapy that have enabled him to remain safely at home with his family.
  • Rosa, a 17-year-old girl who suffers from depression, has struggled for years socially and in school, and even attempted suicide. Her family, which is impoverished and has no health insurance, could not afford to pay for the services Rosa desperately needed. The Voluntary Services Program, however, was able not only to provide desperately needed mental health care and medication to treat Rosa’s depression — none of which she would have been able to get without it.
  • Nicholas, a 12-year-old boy with ADHD and depression who had to repeat the seventh grade due to the severity of his mental health and behavioral problems. Through the Voluntary Services Program, Nicholas and his family received counseling in their home and connected with a psychiatrist who prescribed medication for hisADHD. Teachers and administrators at Nicholas’s school report a complete change in Nicholas’s behavior and academic performance; he has made immense progress in recovering a lost year of reading and writing lessons in a matter of months — and emerging as a leader among his peers in defusing fights and confrontations.

“Ironically, though it costs the state more to care for children in custody than to provide these services in their homes, Governor Rell’s so-called spending cuts guarantee that Connecticut will see a reversal of some of the gains it had made in safely reducing its foster care population,” said Lustbader. “And the cost in terms of families destroyed and children relegated to life as wards of the state will be incalculable.”

Children’s Rights filed the class action known as Juan F. v. Rell in 1989, seeking the reform of the Connecticut child welfare system on behalf of approximately 6,000 children in state custody and thousands more at risk of entering state custody. Although the state has made significant progress since the 1991 settlement, it has yet to meet some key requirements of the reform plan negotiated by Children’s Rights and state officials, and it remains under a federal court order to complete the reforms.

Steven Frederick of the Stamford law firm Wofsey Rosen Kweskin & Kuriansky serves as the children’s co-counsel on the case.

More information about Children’s Rights’ efforts to reform Connecticut child welfare — and a complete archive of documents related to the case — can be found at www.childrensrights.org/connecticut.

Related Press

Group Seeks to Cut Conn. Cuts to Children’s Aid (AP via Hartford Courant, December 9, 2009)

Children’s Advocacy Group Asks Court to Stop Conn. Budget Cut (WSHU Radio Fairfield, December 9, 2009)

Hundreds Protest Rell’s Budget Cuts (The Day, December 10, 2009)

Emergency Motion Filed to Retain Treatment Program for Kids (WNPR Radio, December 10, 2009)

Rell Backs Off on Cost-Saving Move (The Day, December 14, 2009)