June 28, 2005
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
Heather Svetz wasn't a drug addict, a negligent mother or an
abusive parent when she lost custody of her daughter in 2001.
Her crime was that she was poor. She was a homeless single parent who lost
her housing while trying to escape domestic violence.
Despite those setbacks and largely on her own, Svetz, 32, managed
to pull her life together and was reunited with 5-year-old Erica late
last year. But she is still bitter about the experience and feels that
state agencies are too quick to tear families apart rather than help them.
"With more programs for housing, people like me wouldn't lose their
kids," said Svetz, who is working two jobs now to support her daughter
and maintain a federally subsidized apartment in New Haven.
Svetz was one of five guest speakers at a child welfare forum at Central
Connecticut State University Monday.
The forum focused on ways current state and federal funding needs to be
changed to better protect children and promote healthy families. Panelists
like Svetz demonstrated the importance of keeping families together, supporting
children in foster care and continuing to support them once they are adopted
or return home.
Again and again the message was the same: A little prevention and support
goes a long way.
"There needs to be a support system for DCF kids and other kids because
kids are basically being ignored," said Anna Maria Conde, a former
state foster child.
Conde, now an 18-year-old honor student living on her own in Waterbury,
highlighted the need for more, better-trained social workers.
Conde said her overworked and poorly trained state social worker did little
to help her find a permanent family during her nine years in foster care.
She ultimately had to fight to get a different social worker.
Carolyn Jackson said she wishes the state would do more to help the thousands
of grandparents caring for their grandchildren in order to keep them out
of foster care. She would like to see grandparents receive the same kind
of state subsidies routinely granted to foster parents.
"These grandparents want to offer the children permanency, but they
need help to do it," Jackson said.
Shelley Geballe urged Connecticut's political leaders, advocates and families
to fight off current threats to family support funding in Congress and to
push federal authorities to give states greater flexibility so the millions
that states receive can be used where it is needed most. Geballe is president
of Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven nonprofit group and one
of the forum's sponsors.
The federal government currently gives states a misplaced incentive to
keep children in foster care by reimbursing states 50 cents on the dollar
for the cost of keeping kids in high-priced residential care, advocates
said. The result has been the creation of a new generation of foster children
who have languished for years in foster care because of a lack of adoptive
parents and limited support for the biological parents trying to get them
There is little federal reimbursement
for the kind of "front-end" support
programs that help families and keep children in their homes, advocates
said again and again Monday.
D. Ray Sirry, the federal court monitor
overseeing Connecticut's child welfare system, said he would like to see
Connecticut join his "Operation
Front Door" and become a leader in funding and creating front-end support
for families. Such support, he said, would help families before
issues reach a crisis and kids are pushed into foster care or costly residential
U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-5th District, acknowledged that the current
federal funding system is seriously flawed and pledged to do her part to
make sure states get the money they need. Johnson was the guest speaker
at the forum.
"We need a major overhaul," Sirry
said to applause from the crowd of about 100 child welfare professionals,
advocates and private service providers.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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