February 1st, 2010

Connecticut children’s program escapes budget cuts

In 1991, stringent efforts by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights resulted in the creation of the Voluntary Services Program, which is specifically for children in state custody and those in jeopardy of entering state custody. Budget cuts in December threatened the existence of this program and spawned protests from statewide advocacy groups.

In 1989, Children’s Rights brought a class action suit against Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families (DCF). The group cited unacceptable and inadequate child protective services; inordinately long waiting times in state custody and overworked and inadequately trained caseworkers as some of the most prevalent systemic problems. Two years later, the state established the Voluntary Services Program, which serves, on average, 1,000 children every day. Children and youth with behavioral health needs, but who do not require protective service intervention, qualify for the program.

While conditions improved somewhat, key outcomes for children failed to get better. So in 2003, the state transferred oversight of the child welfare system to the federal court. The following year, the court created 22 outcome measures that established needed reforms and benchmarks for DCF. According to Children’s Rights, 16 of the 22 measures have been met.

As Connecticut faced serious fiscal challenges in 2009, Gov. M. Jodi Rell decided to suspend intakes to the Voluntary Services Program. That decision unleashed a firestorm from advocates, including Children’s Rights and Jeanne Milstein, child advocate and chairperson of the Child Fatality Review Panel (CFRP).

In a letter to the governor on Dec. 8, 2009, Milstein wrote, “A decision to suspend new intakes to the Voluntary Services Program erodes the safety net for families who have children with significant mental health needs, including those with co-occurring developmental disorders, cognitive limitations and autism.” She added that this action would result in an increased demand for emergency services and “…feed a pipeline to more intensive and costly services at in-state and out-of-state residential treatment settings and in the child welfare, juvenile justice and adult correctional systems.”

Pressure from Milstein and other state officials, as well as threatened court action from Children’s Rights, convinced Rell to reverse her decision. Gary Kleeblatt, public and community relations officer for DCF, says, “Every state agency has absorbed reductions in the current budget situation and the governor’s recent budget mitigation continues that effort. The reconsideration regarding the DCF Voluntary Services Program reflects the value it has for the children and families of Connecticut.”

Mickey Kramer, MS, RN-C, associate child advocate, expresses relief and gratitude that advocacy efforts have been successful, but has some reservations. “I hope the governor recognizes that this was not in the best interest of Connecticut and Connecticut’s children. They would end up in more grave circumstances. If we don’t provide services in the home, children are more at risk to come out of the home. And this is certainly more costly.”

However, she notes that the Office of Child Advocate, as well as other state agencies, will keep watch on how families will be assessed and if adequate and appropriate services that meet their needs are given. “We want to make sure this is not a shell of services. We will be vigilant in what is happening,” she says.

By Phyllis Hanlon

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