Enhancing Well-being By Strengthening Families

Enhancing Well-being By Strengthening Families

By Joette Katz, DCF Commissioner

In my first six months as commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, there have been many significant changes: reorganization; consolidation; and transformation. All this can be very complex, but it boils down to a very simple idea. By "Strengthening Families," we can best enhance the holistic well-being of children.  This is a common-sense notion that any family understands. It represents a big change in how child welfare is practiced in Connecticut and elsewhere.

First and foremost, we raised the bar for the Department's work. We have clearly declared to all that the Department's mission is to support the holistic well-being of children -- their health, safety, learning (in and out of school), the opportunity to develop special talents, and the chance to give back to the community. This is a critical act of setting a higher standard for the Department and for the State; it signals that safety is necessary -- but is no longer sufficient. It means the Department no longer can revolve around decisions to remove and place children.

Second, four agency transformations have begun and are ongoing:

  • The central office has been overhauled so that the bureaucratic silos that got in the way of promoting holistic well-being have been dissolved. Levels of bureaucracy that got between social workers and the ultimate decision-making authority have been removed.
  • The regional offices are being more robustly supported to become "mini-DCFs" capable of serving children regardless of how they come to require services. Governor Malloy and the Legislature supported our efforts to establish non-classified regional directors who will report directly to me. We expect these directors will be at work this fall.
  • Our two behavioral health institutions are being consolidated, and new units are being developed for special populations. In addition to the consolidation of Riverview Hospital and the Connecticut Children's Place, the function of the medical director at these two facilities is being merged with that at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School.
  • A new Academy for Family and Workforce Knowledge and Development was established. The Academy will support our work throughout the Department and will ensure that the five overarching themes (see below) of this administration's vision for the Department are fully advanced.

Re-framing the mission of the Department to that of promoting the holistic well-being of children is a major reform itself. So to make sure that all of our activities contribute to that vision and mission, we have articulated five overarching themes for our efforts. All our work must be judged by how well it meshes with these five themes:

  • A Strengthening Families paradigm;
  • Trauma informed programs and services;
  • The neuroscience of child development, both for very young children and adolescents;
  • Improved supervision, management and accountability; and
  • Community partnerships.

Strengthening Families, which is a broad-based national movement supported by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, is now taking shape in Connecticut through our development of a Strengthening Families Practice Model and Differential Response System (DRS). This family-centered focus is premised on the belief that the family is a child's greatest resource and greatest strength. The implementation of the Strengthening Families Practice Model is slated to begin by the end of the year in regions 1 (Bridgeport region) and 3 (Middletown region), with statewide implementation slated for spring 2012. DRS, which also received support from the Governor and Legislature  during the just-completed legislative session, is planned for statewide implementation by the end of the year.

While these major practice reforms are being developed, important steps are already underway that are improving our relationship and, accordingly, our work with families. For example, in March, I directed that the routine practice of conducting unannounced visits be halted and only used when necessitated by the nature of the report. Social workers, with the support of their supervisors, are carrying out this new practice of calling to make an appointment whenever possible. Reports are that not only does this basic courtesy improve our relationship with families and the overall path of our work with them, but social workers find more satisfaction and less stress in conducting their difficult work. This experience is bolstering the view that conducting ourselves in a less adversarial and more respectful way results in better outcomes for children.

Improvements to our foster care system also are vital to achieving these outcomes. That is why Deputy Commissioner Dr. Janice Gruendel is now leading our work on a report entitled "Fostering the Future." The report, due in July, is focusing on (1) how we can grow relative care by taking full advantage of the natural support afforded by a child's family, (2) how we can do a better job supporting, respecting and, thus, retaining existing foster families, and (3) how we can offer some new models for therapeutic foster care.

There can be no question that this new administration is asking much of our workers and all our staff. They have difficult jobs working with largely underprivileged families. All the changes underway at the Department have the potential to create stress in an inherently stressful environment. A trying fiscal climate has added to this complexity. I have no doubt, however, that our staff is sufficiently committed to the task of enhancing child well-being and sufficiently talented to rise to the considerable challenge.

I also want to thank our many partners, including legislators, advocates, community providers and others, for supporting our work of transforming the Department. We cannot do this work alone -- and the biggest improvement we can make is by no longer insisting on doing it alone. Finally, I want to acknowledge the families and children we serve. They have such remarkable resiliency and commitment to overcome challenges. Families, indeed, are the most important allies we can have. With families and communities, we will be successful in advancing the holistic well-being of children.