May 29, 2007
Column By RICK GREEN, Courant Staff Writer
Too young for a group home and in the care of the state Department of Children and Families, a slight 13-year-old girl waits in a state-run emergency shelter located on one of Hartford's toughest streets.
It's been over eight months on South Marshall Street, waiting for a foster home. That's a lifetime in adolescent years.
This shy girl would like to see her sister, or perhaps get together with her best friend.
But a block away an unsupervised DCF runaway was murdered last month. Luckily, this girl is locked up tight every night, so perhaps she won't bolt. It is better, maybe, than the emergency room over at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, where mentally ill teenagers end up when there's nowhere else to go.
The rules are tough at the shelter. She takes a cab or van to school in her hometown, a ride of more than 30 minutes. Once back in Hartford, she can't leave the shelter. Sometimes there are outings, but not regularly.
It's National Foster Care Month. Is anyone out there paying attention?
The South Marshall Street shelter "is not a normal environment for a kid. Compare it to what you did at that age. Maybe you go to the movies. You hang out at somebody's house. None of that happens," said Sarah Eagan, a lawyer with Center for Children's Advocacy in Hartford who is representing the 13-year-old in juvenile court.
"DCF's primary job is to make sure children live in families," said Eagan, now trying to force DCF to find a home for the girl. "The law says that my client is entitled to what is appropriate for her."
One wonders why the life of a 13-year-old isn't as vital as grandstanding over gasoline taxes or enough of a priority for our legislators or governor to force the state DCF to move faster and find foster homes for teenagers in state care.
A bill that would have handed a juvenile court judge oversight of cases in which teenagers remain in emergency shelters for more than 30 days has gone nowhere this year in the General Assembly, despite figures that show the length of time young people are staying in emergency shelters is growing.
Four years ago, lawyers for children in shelters tell me, just under 50 percent of youths were staying longer than 45 days in emergency shelters. Last year, the number was nearly 60 percent.
DCF spends hundreds of millions of dollars on mental health programs for children. Connecticut is probably no worse than other states. But isn't this one of those do-not-cross lines, a barrier with a neon sign that says we don't let 13-year-old girls rot in homeless shelters?
Acting DCF Commissioner Brian Mattiello, who said his agency is seeking more foster homes, agreed that eight months in a shelter was too long.
"There is no clinical basis for a child to spend that kind of time," Mattiello said. "Are kids staying too long in emergency settings? The answer is yes."
Raymond L. Torres, executive director of Casey Family Services, which finds and places hundreds of adolescents in group homes, said teenagers aren't a priority with DCF.
"We have been able to find homes for these kids. It is possible. We do it," he said. "They are no different from the younger kids."
I don't see much point in making DCF the villain. But I don't understand how a 13-year-old ends up like this. Apparently, the commissioner agrees.
Thirteen-year-olds, even ones without a family, deserve a home and a telephone and time for sleepovers, the movies and the mall.
National Foster Care Month? Tell that to the girl in the shelter on South Marshall Street.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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