The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

DCF denies ‘deficienci­es’ cited in child death review

- By Lisa Backus

The commission­er of the state Department of Children and Families contests the findings of an investigat­ion conducted by the Child Advocate that concluded the agency’s work was deficient when dealing with a 1year-old who died of fentanyl intoxicati­on.

DCF Commission­er Vannessa Dorantes told the Committee on Children on Wednesday that the agency’s review of baby Kaylee’s death in Salem in February 2022 didn’t reveal any “deficienci­es” in the way the case was handled.

“We disagree with that finding,” Dorantes said.

The work at the time was done as “expected,” Dorantes said. The agency eventually examined the case and others involving fentanyl and implemente­d changes, including additional training and more guidelines for safety practice and handling parents and caregivers with fentanyl addiction, she said.

In her 15-page report, Child Advocate Sarah Eagan contends DCF needs better safety planning for the children who have been placed back with parents or who remain with parents while caseworker­s monitor their progress toward dealing with allegation­s of neglect or abuse.

State Rep. Liz Linehan, DCheshire, and Sen. Ceci Maher, D-Darien, co-chairs of the Committee on Children, called for Wednesday’s meeting between the agencies to discuss child fatalities Eagan’s report was released last week. Linehan was also instrument­al in crafting a bill requiring DCF caseworker­s to do home visits with children and their families in their care.

Linehan said intent of the meeting wasn’t a “finger-pointing, witch-hunt expedition,” but to examine the issues to see what the state could do to help.

“I appreciate the disclaimer,” Dorantes said before she addressed staffing and retention. “Words matter and when we are represente­d in the media as deficient or covering, which are words I’ve heard and read and have to defend with reporters and that doesn’t help families.”

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said he studied Kaylee’s case and noted it was obvious the family should have been receiving in-person visits.

“If a person visits a place, they

get a far better idea of what’s going,” Anwar said.

Dorantes said a supervisor came to the same conclusion after examining the case and considerin­g the child’s father appeared to be intoxicate­d during virtual visits. But the in-person visit turned out to be scheduled on the day after the baby died, Dorantes said.

Eagan’s report comes on the heels of the deaths of eight children who all suffered fatal fentanyl poisoning while living with parents or caregivers, including Kaylee. Eagan is now also investigat­ing the death of a Stamford 2year-old whose family was receiving services from DCF when he was found buried at a local park in January.

Her investigat­ion into Kaylee’s death revealed DCF caseworker­s had not been in the child’s hom e in the two months before she died.

Police responding to a call that the child was unresponsi­ve described the home in arrest warrants as littered with food and alcohol bottles with a used container of Narcan that investigat­ors believe may have been used on the baby in an attempt to revive her.

Eagan wants the agency to provide quality assurance reports done in real time on their work with children who are remaining at home and she wants DCF to be more transparen­t about deaths of children under its care and where there are deficienci­es in keeping children safe.

But DCF Deputy Commission­er Michael Williams said it would be too time consuming for staff to produce the reports. However, according to Eagan’s report, DCF repeatedly promised to provide the reports once they were completed.

Eagan examined several cases, including Kaylee’s, that she felt demonstrat­ed poor DCF safety planning, including the death of a 1-year-old who died of complicati­ons of an infection after his family was released from DCF and the near death of a 1year-old who overdosed on fentanyl while visiting his mother at a relative’s home.

Caseworker­s for the child who died after suffering an infection closed the family’s case after an investigat­ion with no monitoring or safety plans except prohibitin­g the child’s father from being left alone with his children, Eagan said. DCF was alerted to the family after the father showed up at school to drop off his 4year-old “under the influence and belligeren­t” and admitted he had used marijuana and fentanyl prior to his arrival, Eagan said. No advice from clinicians or evaluation­s were sought by DCF during the investigat­ion into his behavior, she said.

In the case of the 1-yearold’s near death, the safety plan had not been reviewed for seven months and DCF’s workers expressed concerns about the adequacy of support for the child’s caregivers and the availabili­ty of intensive in-home treatment services for those dealing with substance abuse disorder, Eagan said.

While acknowledg­ing DCF has improved training and guidance on fentanyl use in the home since Kaylee’s death, Eagan said the agency is falling short when it comes to crafting safety plans and making sure they are supervised, monitored and adjusted as time goes on. Eagan also recommende­d that legislator­s “revive” the Children’s Report Card that is supposed to evaluate the progress of all state agencies and programs designed to make sure all Connecticu­t children grow up in stable and safe environmen­ts.

The report card would include key measures of performanc­e in the state’s child welfare system, including rates of repeat maltreatme­nt, placement in out-of-home care among children at risk of neglect and abuse, child fatalities involving abuse or neglect and rates of reunificat­ion or permanency for children removed from their homes.

By state law, the Child Report Card went into effect in 2019, but it is unclear whether it was ever implemente­d.

Eagan said she is not in favor of taking children from their homes if the family can safely be treated and receive DCF services while they are together.

“Unnecessar­y removal of a child into foster care creates trauma and additional harms, particular­ly for young children,” Eagan said. “However, where safety cannot be reasonably and timely mitigated, identifica­tion of a safe alternativ­e caregiver is necessary.”

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