DCF offers families larger role in helping children
New program is having good results
Norwich, Conn. —
Lorraine Thomas has spent nearly 20 years as a social worker in the Department of Children and Family Services’ Norwich office.
But it wasn’t until several years ago the veteran counselor learned first-hand how significant a choice it can be to shelter a loved one in lieu of foster care.
“In the past, I would have been OK with not having that responsibility,” Thomas said of the nephew she took guardianship of 10 years ago. “It’s been 10 years, but the big piece is that he knows his mother, he goes to visit his mother and he knows his family.”
Trying as it was, the experience positioned Thomas well to succeed in a new social work model officially rolled out by the state in February that gives families more of a role than ever before to improve the well-being of children.
“We’re treating families the way we want to be treated, and we’re valuing them,” said Tom Martin, an office supervisor at Norwich’s DCF office since 2009. “I think we had a lost commodity (in families), and we’re bringing that to the table and finding there’s a lot of value.”
It’s a professional shift that may seem subtle, Thomas said, but the outcome is apparent.
“We value parents, we value children, we value families,” she said. “In the past, if we’ve had to remove a child, very seldom would we look to a family like we do now.”
Known as the Strengthening Families Practice Model, the philosophy is championed by DCF Commissioner Joette Katz, who has called it a “common-sense notion.”
In February, Katz appeared before the General Assembly’s Human Services Committee, where she briefed members on the agency’s new approach.
“Experience and research indicate that the quality of family participation is the single most important factor in the success of our work,” she said then. “The Strengthening Families Practice Model promises to fundamentally improve how we engage families to take control of their own treatment and their own lives.”
Katz visited Norwich last week to monitor progress at the local level.
Mary Cummins, a program manager with the city’s DCF branch, said the commissioner-endorsed social work model has already led to results.
There are 373 Norwich DCF-based children placed in outside family care, Cummins said.
“We need to look at extended families first, and foster care only if there’s no one else available,” she said. “Sometimes what happens in a situation is it doesn’t work with a (certain) relative, so we have a larger discussion about who is the appropriate person.”
That’s not to say foster placement is ignored. It remains a viable option for many, but even that process has been altered to ensure children are getting the best results.
To even be eligible for fostering a child, applicants must be willing to meet with and speak with biological parents to learn as much information as possible about the client.
“We want them to tell the foster parent what the child’s likes are, what they’re dislikes are,” Thomas said. “We recognize as an agency, that not everyone is in the same place.”
In addition to searching for the right familial connection, officials for the first time are working closely with the state Department of Education and local school districts, using data from standardized test scores to help determine the strengths and weaknesses of children in DCF care.
“What do we need to do to make sure the schools are meeting their needs, and that we’re meeting their needs,” Cummins said.
Martin echoed that.
“There are just overall better results for children when families have some power,” he said.