Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) John Polanowicz today presented a progress report from the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) on the organization’s ongoing efforts to help the Department of Children and Families (DCF) strengthen the child welfare safety net. CWLA is conducting a full, independent review of the Department which will be available in May. CWLA has provided this initial progress report to help inform DCF policies and practices and identify areas for action in the immediate term, where necessary.
“Keeping children safe requires the Commonwealth’s commitment to creating and sustaining change over the long-term,” said Linda Spears, CWLA vice president of policy & public affairs. “CWLA is pleased to provide a first step towards addressing some of the urgent matters facing DCF, and we look forward to providing more in-depth guidance in our final report.”
“We are enhancing staffing and technology through the Governor’s budget to further strengthen our safety net in alignment with CWLA’s thoughtful proposals,” said Secretary Polanowicz. “We look forward to CWLA’s final recommendations and will use these interim findings to guide the Department’s practices to keep children safe.”
“I thank CWLA for their progress report, and ongoing work,” said DCF Commissioner Olga Roche. “While we await the final report, we have been taking immediate actions to improve our practices and ensure we are doing everything in our power to protect the children we serve.”
CWLA Recommendations and DCF Actions:
1) Staffing and Caseloads: CWLA recommends addressing caseloads across the Department and staffing needs at the North Central Area Office. DCF has completed staffing enhancements at North Central, adding close to 15 additional personnel to support that office. The Governor’s FY15 budget includes funding for another 177 positions to meet 15:1 caseload goals previously agreed upon with the union. DCF has hired 90 new social workers since the beginning of the year to support DCF.
2) Technology: While there are few examples of other states or counties with social workers using mobile technology, CWLA recommends studying real-time case file access from handheld devices and the ability for social workers to make emergency calls, which DCF is working to implement. The Governor’s proposed investments include mobile devices for social workers to provide real time updates on client visits. The first 60 mobile tablets are being programmed with DCF’s computer system and will be distributed to on-call supervisors in the coming weeks. This initial technology deployment will be tested on a pilot basis with on-call supervisors, and the results of this pilot will dictate how the Department deploys additional technology solutions more broadly to DCF social workers in the field later in the year.
3) Background Checks for Foster and Kinship Families: Existing Practice: Under DCF regulations, the Department considers various factors, such as the nature of a crime, circumstances, and the amount of time that has passed since the crime occurred, when it reviews foster parent applications. The vast majority of waiver cases are kinship home placements with grandparents, aunts, uncles or a close family friend, who provide a stable and safe home environment to a child. DCF currently has a policy to conduct CORI and SORI background checks of all members of a household age 14 and over, as well as frequent visitors to the home. The Governor’s FY15 budget also includes funding for staffing and technology to help better document all checks.
CWLA Recommendations and DCF Actions: CWLA has recommended adopting an approval process that assesses the entire home, basing an approval or denial on that complete picture. DCF has always reviewed the whole home, and agrees with this approach. CWLA will be providing more specifics on what this process should look like in their final report, and we will use that more prescriptive recommendation to determine next steps. CWLA also recommends heightened case monitoring, home visitation, supervision and case oversight be implemented for placements that have been approved through the waiver process. This includes documentation of key factors and indicators related to the safety and well-being of each child. For homes where a waiver has already been granted, DCF will be strengthening its monitoring of those homes. Manager-level reviews of homes where Class A, B, and C waivers have been granted will be conducted every 3 months. This oversight will supplement current monthly visits from social workers, and additional visits from other DCF professionals. CWLA also recommends that the foundation for future background check standards should be based off of draft standards developed recently by a group of national child welfare organizations. This includes mandatory, permanent exclusion for certain felony convictions, and exclusion for certain other convictions that have occurred within the past five years. CWLA recommends legal counsel review case law to determine whether statutory or regulatory action is needed. This process is underway.
4) Teens Who Have Run Away From Placement: Existing Practice: When the Department becomes aware that a child’s whereabouts are unknown, staff immediately contacts law enforcement to file a missing person’s report, contacts the child’s parents and attorney while also reaching out to anyone who may know where to locate them. The Department actively searches in partnership with law enforcement until the child is found. DCF does not track children “on the run” who are not in placement as they are not in the custody of the Department.
CWLA Recommendations and DCF Actions: CWLA recommends DCF take a photo of all children who enter custody so that the photo can be shared with law enforcement and others who are searching for the runaway youth. When a child runs away, there should be an immediate assessment of the vulnerabilities of a youth who is on the run to determine risks and appropriate responses, including protocols for reducing the potential for harm of children in out of home care or on a runaway status. DCF, with the help of CWLA, is working to develop the appropriate policy around and capability to allow the Department to take photos of all youth in custody. DCF’s existing plan to distribute mobile technology to social workers is underway and will help increase documentation and tracking of client information. DCF is also working to develop identifying signs and risk assessments in an effort to prevent runaway situations.
5) Medical Screenings for Children Entering Care: Existing Practice: DCF’s policy to arrange for medical screenings within 7 days of custody and a complete Early Periodic Screening Diagnosis and Treatment examination within 30 days of placement represents one of the highest standards used by states. As a result, 77 percent of children have had a medical exam within 30 days of placement and, more than 90 percent of youth had some form of medical care within a 30 day window of their DCF placement. DCF’s population faces the same issues as the general population around access to primary care physicians and availability of appointments, which create challenges.
CWLA Recommendation and DCF Actions: CWLA recommends that DCF adopt the American Academy of Pediatrics and CWLA’s Standards for Health Care Services for Children in Out of Home Care which requires a medical screening within 72 hours and a more comprehensive exam within 30 days. DCF is collaborating with pediatricians to identify clear medical priorities to ensure that children with the highest medical needs receive priority for screenings and comprehensive medical assessments. DCF recently initiated a data sharing reporting structure with Medicaid as an additional means of ensuring compliance with medical check policies.
Since 1920, CWLA has been a leading, national organization dedicated to ensuring that disadvantaged and vulnerable children are protected from harm and have the tools and resources they need to succeed. CWLA is comprised of professionals who work with children, advocating on their behalf at the national, state and local level. CWLA publishes professional literature including a peer-reviewed journal, a magazine called the Children’s Voice, and performance standards aimed at helping agencies achieve excellence.