April 1st, 2017

Task force studies custody status of voluntarily admitted children

Under proposed Connecticut legislation, a task force will study voluntary admissions to the Department of Children and Families and determine whether general law amendments are needed to prohibit DCF from requesting or requiring that the parent or guardian of voluntarily admitted children terminate parental rights or transfer legal custody of the child to DCF.

The task force is part of a substitute bill stemming from earlier proposed legislation (H.B. 6297) heard in the Joint Committee on Children and introduced by State Rep. Rosa C. Rebimbas, to prohibit DCF from “requesting, recommending or requiring” a parent/guardian terminate parental rights or transfer custody to DCF when placing their child in voluntary care for mental health or developmental treatment in out-of-home facilities.

Rebimbas said in a statement that several parents contacted her saying they had been pressured by attorneys and DCF to relinquish parental rights in order to access services.

The task force will also study methods to increase access to DCF’s voluntary services and improve voluntary and case management services and the ability of providers to meet those needs.

The grassroots Family Forward Advocacy CT has been advocating for custody relinquishment prevention legislation. Founder Maureen O’Neill-Davis, also a volunteer advocate for the Attachment & Trauma Network, said her organization hears from families whose children have been directed into voluntary services for behavioral health care and go through the recommended steps to access services.

“But when you hit the funding and programming wall, if you will, these families are directed to go to DCF to access the next level of care,” she said.

O’Neill-Davis said because of factors including significant budget cuts to children’s mental health services and Medicaid or insurance coverage limitations, families unable to get services to treat their child’s serious mental illness are turning to DCF to access more intensive or specialized out-of-home treatment when in crisis,.

In some cases, they must relinquish custody of their child to DCF despite the absence of substantiated evidence-supported abuse or neglect.

O’Neill-Davis would like to see legislation that modifies statute language centering around parents meeting the “specialized needs” of a child within the home.

“If (DCF is) led to believe the specialized needs of a child aren’t met in the home, it is within its structure to transfer custody because that constitutes neglect,” and the case goes before a judge, she said. “We are looking to change that so that not meeting the needs in the home does not constitute neglect.”

In some cases, O’Neill-Davis said “sensible, responsible” parents who choose not to take their child home from out-of-home facilities if the child is behaving in an unsafe or violent manner are having their case turned into a child protection matter, deemed “abandonment.”

O’Neill-Davis said Connecticut is one of a handful of states that houses its children’s behavioral health delivery system administration under its child protection services umbrella, rather than under social services, public health or mental health.

As a result, situations involving a higher needs child are looked at from a child protection need rather than behavioral response need.

Susan Kelley, director of children’s mental health policy for NAMI Connecticut and director of Alliance for Children’s Mental Health, of which NAMI Connecticut is a member, agreed that the situation is complicated by the fact that the DCF wears the “dual hats” of child protection and mental health treatment.

“It gets complicated because there are proceedings in child welfare about termination of parental rights that would never come up in the voluntary context,” Kelley said.

Kelley said state statutes allow for families to access voluntary services freely without being subject of an abuse and neglect petition.

“Where the breakdown is occurring is that families often can’t access the services they need and there are incentives for families to have to go through child welfare,” she said. “When kids are really struggling or acting out aggressively, parents often feel like they can’t be safely kept in the home. As soon as DCF gets involved, unfortunately things change to where they are wearing their protective services hat rather than their treatment hat.”

Kelley said such circumstances trigger the neglect and abuse model, which is the legal standard of what’s in the best interest of the child, but can be an adversarial system against the parent.

“If you are looking at it from a treatment model, you should be looking at what’s in the best interest of the family,” Kelley said.

In testimony during a February public hearing on H.B. 6297, DCF acknowledged that while more work needs to be done to establish a children’s behavioral health system where the “no wrong door” concept becomes a reality, “we disagree with the notion that DCF requires parents to completely relinquish custody of their child in this process.”

The department said it provides behavioral health services for thousands of children while they remain in their parents’ care.

However, “Some families are of the opinion that their children require out of home care, despite clinical recommendations to the contrary,” the department’s statement read.

“Those families often notify us or other professionals that they will not take their children home and will not cooperate with recommended community-based or home-based treatment services. When that occurs, the Department will respond by educating the families about the many in-home and community-based services that are available. If a family continues to refuse to take their children home or to cooperate with recommended outpatient services, we are left with no choice but to go to court to seek custody of the child so that we can provide them with a place to live and the community-based services and treatment they require.”

By Pamela Berard

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