Over the past year, the Department of Children and Families has seen the number of children in foster care dip from 4,100 to 3,700. But Natalia Liriano, director of the foster care division, acknowledges that 3,700 is still too many.
“I think the way the world is there will always be a need for foster care. As a system we want to make sure that if a child comes into care there is a family on the other end to support them. The goal is to reduce the number of kids that come into care,” she said.
She said 45% of the children in foster care are with a relative, and nine out of 10 are in a family setting.
“If they are with a family, the likelihood of them lingering in care reduces significantly,” Liriano said. “They either go back home or end up staying with their relatives.”
Since March 2020, close to 700 children have been reunified with their own families, guardianship has been transferred for 360 children with another 400 adopted, Liriano said.
Foster families faced all the same challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Liriano said, managing education, entertainment and technology as well as child care arrangements.
“Our foster parents are a rock — and they rocked,” Liriao said.
For its part, DCF had to navigate how to facilitate family visits, and deal with people coming down with the virus. Families received a call a day from the agency in the early months of the pandemic, which was reduced to a phone call a week or every two weeks depending on the need.
“If a child came into care with COVID, that is where we may have had one or two challenges,” Liriano said. “But we made sure every child had a place to sleep, and we were successful in that.”
While the pandemic may be fading in the rearview mirror, its impact has left some families reluctant to gather, according to Thomas Michalski, senior program director at The Village for Families and Children, a Hartford agency that provides foster homes for children ages 6-18 who have been exposed to trauma.
With that in mind, The Village held a drive-through appreciation event Wednesday for foster families, providing meals, supplies and gift bags as a way to thank them.
“Some of the foster families are older and we understand their reticence about that and their desire to remain safe,” Michalski said of the drive-through event. “We tried to come up with creative ways that would appeal to at least the majority of our families and show our appreciation. It’s been a taxing year for everyone.”
While foster families have been a source of stability, comfort and support for children, The Village transitioned to online telehealth, visiting placed children outdoors and on front porches in the interest of their peace of mind. It stepped up its on-call rate in order to address needs at all hours and gave families PPE and cleaning supplies.
“We were always staying connected and involved and asking what they needed,” Michalski said.
But with thousands of children still in the system, DCF continues to recruit foster families.
Michalski stressed the significant training for anyone wanting to foster and the support for the family throughout the child’s stay.
“You’re really never in it alone,” he said. “We’ve had families develop lifelong friendships.”
Liriano said DCF is reaching out to potential foster parents to find homes for teenagers in particular through virtual open houses, social media, and by working with faith-based organizations.
Connecticut has also joined with Quality Parenting Initiative, a California-based agency that helps organizations like DCF work with foster families and birth families to define clear expectations and to make sure children are supported. In addition, the state is implementing a Connecticut Family First plan, based on 2018 federal legislation to prevent kids from entering foster care by providing federal reimbursement for mental health services, substance abuse treatment and in-home parenting skill training.
In the end, reuniting the child with his or her family is the goal.
“We don’t want to separate families. We want to support families,” Liriano said. “Foster care is about restoring family and the caregivers or foster parents that we hope to recruit and join our team are those that believe in the restoration of family and believe in shared parenting.”