Impact Feature Issue on Children with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System
Observations of a Child Protection Supervisor in Connecticut
I have been a social worker in the child welfare field for nine years, working primarily in child protection investigations and in permanency planning for children. I supervise a child protection unit in Meriden, Connecticut, and over the years have worked with numerous families with children who have disabilities. Child welfare services in Connecticut have evolved over time. In the past 15 years, our staffing has doubled and our caseloads have been cut in half due to a federal court order. With more time to spend with each family, service delivery has improved; this is a positive step for all families, especially those with children with disabilities with whom it often takes extra time to identify and meet the needs of the children. However, we also continue to face many challenges.
Challenges and Strategies
There are five primary challenges I’ve experienced in working with children with disabilities and their families as they are involved with our child welfare system:
- Parental issues and needs. Often the issues associated with a child’s disability are in addition to other challenges faced by the families that come into contact with our child welfare system, such as domestic violence, substance abuse, unemployment, and/or poverty. For parents who are unable to manage the challenges they face, physical abuse, severe neglect, and sexual abuse of their children may occur. We often see parents who do not have sufficient emotional or financial support to raise their child who has a disability.
- Lack of specialized providers. Even with increased state funding over the past several years, we lack the resources necessary to provide adequate care to our children with specialized needs. There is a need for more specialized and community service providers equipped to meet the special needs of children with disabilities and their families.
- Provider turnover. Many of our provider agencies use interns who change agencies every year. Children become comfortable and trust one therapist, and then that person leaves and another comes in to start over. This cycle is damaging to the many children who have a difficult time trusting and confiding in adults. The provider’s limited budget forces them to make the difficult choice between having continuity of care and being sensitive to children with disabilities.
- Lack of appropriate foster homes. We are in need of foster homes who are prepared to care for children with various types of disabilities. There is a lack of families who are willing to accept children with specialized needs into their homes. Recruiting foster homes is currently a challenge nationally and the challenge to recruit foster homes to care for children with disabilities is more severe.
- Training for child welfare staff. Our child protection staff does not receive a great deal of training related to working with children with disabilities. As new workers are hired, these cases are difficult for them to manage and often take a great deal of their time as they try to learn about the child’s disability, services options, and conduct all other case management activities.
Some of the strategies that we use to successfully address these challenges, are the following:
- Flexible funds. Flexible funds are one way we can assist families to obtain services which otherwise are not contracted through the child welfare department. Flexible funds are part of our annual budget set aside for family expenses such as rent, security deposits, and furniture. Flexible funds can also be used to tailor existing services to meet the needs of the child and family.
- Alternatives to foster homes. To address the foster home shortage for children with disabilities, we have sought extended family members who are willing to care for children. They are often aware of the child’s needs and how best to meet them. We also have implemented “Safe Homes,” group care facilities where children go for the first 45 days of their placement and are evaluated for placement needs. Recommendations identify the types of things that we must look for in a suitable foster home or other placement.
- On-the-job training. On-the-job training is used to assist workers who are not experienced with children with disabilities and their families. New workers often collaborate with workers who have experience working with children and youth with disabilities. These workers serve as a sort of “mentor” and direct the less experienced workers to needed resources.
The children in my care rely on me for support, protection, safety, and comfort. Children and youth with disabilities have unique needs and we must continue to strive for better services and outcomes for these children and their families.