As advocates across the state urge leaders to support the establishment of independent foster care review, Friends of Children recognizes a need to amplify the voices of those involved in the current system, through Voices from the Inside.
What follows are perspectives from two foster care review volunteers. The first is currently involved in foster care review, and the second resigned after one year in the role.
Perspective Number One:
A Current DCF Volunteer Foster Care Case Reviewer
What drew you to become a Volunteer Foster Care Case Reviewer?
Giving back to the community through volunteering has always been an important part of my life. Since I was interested in a volunteer opportunity helping children and foster children are a population with the greatest need I decided to become a Foster Care Case Reviewer.
What was the training experience like?
The training was completely virtual but covered a lot of information about the situations that result in DCF removing children and the process once children enter the foster care system. We learned about the topics that are discussed during reviews and how determinations are made.
What has the review experience been like?
I was completely blind-sided by the actual review experience – parents are ignored, dismissed, chastised for expressing their feelings, given incomplete or ambiguous information and shown a lack of respect and consideration in general. I became so disturbed and unsettled by witnessing all the reasons children remain in foster care longer than they need to and how children who don’t belong in foster care end up there that I nearly resigned before completing ten reviews.
“I was completely blind-sided by the actual review experience – parents are ignored, dismissed, chastised for expressing their feelings, given incomplete or ambiguous information and shown a lack of respect and consideration in general.”
In your experience, does foster care review have a positive impact on the well-being of children, young adults and families?
Foster Care Reviews must be conducted by an external entity in order to adequately serve the needs of DCF involved children and families. Volunteer Foster Care Case Reviewers are NOT the solution since they do not have power or authority over the actions of DCF when they disagree with DCF’s determinations during reviews.
What do you think about the bills filed by Senator Comerford and Representative Farley Bouvier to create a Foster Care Review Office, independent of DCF, to conduct these reviews?
An independent Foster Care Review Office is long overdue. Inherent bias is not unique or exclusive to DCF, which is why audits in every other industry are performed by an unaffiliated third party. DCF Volunteer Foster Care Case Reviewers are susceptible to the same bias as other DCF employees. DCF’s internal review process enables them to control and influence the perspective of the review in a manner that favors DCF, including the determinations of the Volunteer Foster Care Case Reviewers. Every oversight results in a child spending at least six months up to three years or more in foster care. How is this acceptable? Not only is this detrimental to children and families, it is a gross waste of resources.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Children that do not belong in foster care must be removed from the foster care system so that DCF can provide the highest level of care to the children that actually need to be there – this is not possible without an external Foster Care Review Office. I am not against DCF, I am against DCF operating without any accountability which is negatively impacting children and families they are supposed to be helping.
Perspective Number Two:
A Former DCF Volunteer Foster Care Case Reviewer
What drew you to become a volunteer foster care reviewer?
My journalism career has been based on asking questions to better understand a situation. I wanted to use that skill set as a volunteer reviewer to provide an outside perspective and help achieve accountability in the foster care system.
Additionally, my husband and I were considering becoming foster parents and I wanted to gain more insight into how the system works, including who the stakeholders are and what the circumstances are for families and children involved in foster care.
What was the training experience like?
I participated in two 4-hour sessions of Zoom training administered by the DCF Foster Care Review Unit’s volunteer coordinators. Much of the training focused on explaining the basics of how foster children’s cases move through the DCF system and what the Department is obligated to provide for children when they are in its custody as well as explanations of the various permanency options for children in care.
We discussed the various topics and kinds of questions that we should consider asking during reviews about a child’s care, placement, and family relationships. We had a mock foster care review meeting where we were provided with a fabricated action plan and previous review report and practiced when, how, and what to ask during a review meeting.
What was not explained is how to write minority opinions when serving on panels or how the determinations made in the review are used in a child or family’s case.
“Without knowing how a foster care review’s findings are used, it felt more and more that I was participating in a formality rather than a comprehensive evaluation that could have an impact.”
What has been your experience doing reviews?
On average, I participated in three to four FCRs per month over a year long period from 2022 to 2023.
As a volunteer reviewer, the only information I was given going into a foster care review is the previous review report and the family assessment and action plan. DCF Foster Care Review Unit professional reviewers are provided with more documentation and updated information prior to a review. I often spent much of the 90 minutes allotted for the meeting just trying to make sure I understood all that had happened in the child’s life in the period since the last review. Foster care reviews are supposed to occur every six months to make sure children are not lingering in care and to ensure cases can redirect goals and services in a timely manner. However, I participated in several cases where the last review was more than a year prior. In that long time span, it was not uncommon to hear that the child had moved between several homes and cycled through multiple social workers. Just going over the basic events and changes that occurred in that long time span left much less time for qualitative discussions about what was working for a child and what was not.
By the end of every review, the three-person panel must make several determinations. These determinations are standardized ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to questions about whether there have been observable behavioral changes in a parent’s capacity, if the foster placement has met the child’s needs, and if DCF completed the necessary steps to address the needs of the family during the period under review. Those are questions with complex answers, and I often felt it was difficult to reduce my conclusions to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. At times I would provide a minority opinion on a determination because I felt compelled to introduce more information and nuance to my answer.
Foster care review reports include a ‘Recommendations’ section and this was a place I felt I could have the most concrete impact by stipulating my determinations with a specific suggestion that I knew would at least be asked about in the next review with the expectation that it had been addressed in some form. It was as close as I felt I could get to accountability for specific actions such as sibling contact that wasn’t happening or a service for a child or parent that was not being provided.
Have you been able to meet the expectations or goals you had for yourself, or your contribution, when you decided to be a volunteer?
There was value for me to see and hear the perspectives of the various stakeholders involved in a foster child’s life. In this sense, I did fulfill the goal I had for myself to better understand the process and circumstances of child welfare cases. Unfortunately, a lot of that insight left me with more questions and concerns about the process for families and children in foster care than confidence in the system.
Regarding whether I was able to contribute to accountability, I ultimately did not feel that I could meet that goal within the limited format of foster care reviews as a volunteer reviewer. This is largely because I cannot tell you what happens with the findings in a review. The report of a foster care review meeting is filed in the family’s DCF record (although I never saw the resulting reports for cases I was a volunteer reviewer on). The determinations are said to be “binding”, however I have not received a clear explanation about what concrete actions or consequences, if any, are taken because of the determinations of a review. If I or either of the other panelists deemed that DCF had not adequately addressed the needs of a family, what happened next? Is DCF required to correct gaps in service to the family or child based on a review’s findings? Without knowing how a foster care review’s findings are used, it felt more and more that I was participating in a formality rather than a comprehensive evaluation that could have an impact. That lack of transparency is a significant part of why I stepped away from the role earlier this year.
What do you think about the bills filed by Senator Comerford and Representative Farley-Bouvier to create a Foster Care Review Office, independent of DCF, to conduct these reviews?
I am supportive of the legislation as a first and foundational step in encouraging more transparency and accountability in the care and outcomes for children in DCF custody. It simply does not make sense to allow DCF to have its own unit within the Department to check and balance itself. However, an independent body to conduct reviews does not in itself guarantee the reviews are more effective or result in consequences if DCF is not meeting a child’s needs; I think a new office will have to rethink numerous aspects of the foster care review process, especially regarding how review findings lead to consequences or action on a case.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
There are so few times in the life of a child welfare case that biological parents, foster parents, treatment and service providers, social workers, attorneys, and other stakeholders in a foster child’s life gather. The foster care review meeting is one of those critical times. There is such potential for it to be a valuable opportunity to comprehensively evaluate what is and what is not working in a foster child’s case if it is administered effectively and leads to actual action.
Your Ongoing Support Gives Vulnerable Children A Voice
The sustained effort needed to change our broken system through new policies depends on your sustained support. Friends of Children is so grateful to its many donors as we continue to take action for children and youth. As our report, Failing Our Kids, states, “Children and youth involved with DCF, among the most vulnerable in our society, have very little presence in our legislative chambers, our newsrooms, and our boardrooms. And they have no direct say whatsoever in our voting booths … they are functionally voiceless in the policy decisions that most affect their lives.” Thank you for enabling us to be their voice!
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