Though the number of Connecticut children in need of foster homes is dropping, local activists are still calling for improvement to the foster care system.
Connecticut has seen a 16 percent reduction in the number of children in the foster care system since January 2011, said Gary Kleeblatt, Connecticut Department of Children and Families communications director. But although New Haven’s foster care system has seen improvements in the past years, foster mom Jennifer Hartley said the system still has a long way to go. Hartley is joined by child-placing agents who state that while New Haven has seen significant reductions in the number of children in need of foster families, those children and their new parents are often neglected by the system.
“Foster parents don’t have the support they need to be doing the very hard job they are doing,” said Randi Rubin Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of r’ Kids Family Center — a licensed child placing agency based in New Haven.
Current state efforts are focused on reducing the number of children in need of a foster home, Kleeblatt said.
In 2011, only 21 percent of foster children were placed with kin or someone they knew intimately, such as a coach or family friend. As of September 2015, that percentage has nearly doubled, now standing at 39.3 percent, Kleeblatt said. He added that there has been a 62 percent reduction in the number of children placed in DCF-run residential facilities, which are a last resort for foster children because they do not provide the support of a traditional family.
“We’ve been really working to strengthen families and their capacity to care for children themselves,” Kleeblatt said. “Families are the best resources that children have. If we can support families to do what they naturally do, which is to care for their kids, then we are ahead of the game.”
But Rubin Rodriguez said she wants to see improvements to the system beyond what the government has already achieved. While the state has been working to prevent the separation of children from their birth parents, considerably less attention has been given to foster parents themselves, she said.
Rubin Rodriguez said the government does not provide enough therapeutic and psychiatric resources to meet the needs of foster children whose experiences render them especially prone to mental health issues. The lack of mental health resources also makes caring for foster children more challenging for parents who are not fully equipped to deal with their child’s mental illness, she added.
“The lack of availability of mental health resources is a crime,” Rubin Rodriguez said. “That a child has to be tormented because there are no other services besides the ER is disheartening.”
She said the government relies on community agencies to provide parents and children with the services needed throughout the foster process. But the individual agencies do not have the infrastructure necessary to meet the city’s need, she said. Rubin Rodriguez added that the dearth in resources is exacerbated by lack of volunteers.
Foster care advocates also said that despite the dropping number of children in need of foster homes, Connecticut still needs more residents to volunteer as foster parents.
“The whole state of Connecticut is in real need for people who are willing to share their lives with a youth in need,” said Elaine Benevides, the supervisor of the therapeutic foster care program for Jewish Family Service, a child placement agency. “There are so many youth in the system who need a home and just not enough people who are willing to come forward and be a resource.”
Hartley’s 17-year-old foster daughter said foster children find it difficult to move from home to home. She said greater availability of long-term homes would provide more stability for children within the system.
Today there are 3,995 children in foster care in the state of Connecticut.