Five years ago, some of the problems plaguing Connecticut's Department of Children and Families could have been ripped right from South Carolina's playbook.
Children were dying. Caseworkers were overloaded. Foster families were in short supply.
The agency perpetually resisted change, despite a class action lawsuit settlement that required sweeping reform.
The Connecticut department's most “urgent focus” was the high number of children in group homes, according to a report published earlier this year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation called “The Connecticut Turnaround.”
Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat elected to Connecticut's highest office in 2010, wanted to decrease the number of children in group settings and increase family placements — and he appointed a new commissioner to the Department of Children and Families to make it happen.
“From the get go, I remember them appearing on the local NPR station, speaking specifically, in a focused way, about those twin goals,” said Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. “That was at the top of their agenda.”
On Jan. 1, 2011, about a third of the 4,780 children in Connecticut's custody lived in group homes.
In fact, more than 350 of those children lived in out-of-state group homes because Connecticut had run out of available beds.
Four years later, those numbers have been cut in half. Now, fewer than 16 percent of children in state custody in Connecticut live in a group home.
In South Carolina, about 22 percent of children in state custody live in a group setting — much higher than the national average of 14 percent.
Federal data shows South Carolina places about a quarter of its youngest foster children — those below 13 years old — into group homes and institutions when they enter the system. The national average for this age group is only 4 percent. South Carolina's placement rate for these children is the highest in the country.
“We know kids do better with families,” said Kristina Stevens, administrator of clinical services for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. “The research is abundantly clear.”
Making the change in Connecticut wasn't easy, she said. “You'd like to flip a switch and do it all at one time, but you can't.”
First, the department focused on reconnecting the youngest children in state custody with relatives or friends. More than 30 percent of children in state custody in Connecticut now live with relatives or close kin, compared to 21 percent four years ago.
This shift automatically lowered the number of children in group homes and it also reduced the total number of children in state custody.
“These are two trends that go hand in hand,” Stevens said. “I don't think you can stress enough how interrelated those things are.”
Also, by reducing the amount Connecticut spent on group homes, the state was able to reinvest some money into “community-based services” that allow children to live at home or with relatives. Those services include in-home or in-school therapy sessions.
Kleeblatt said Connecticut will spend an estimated $129 million on group homes during the 2015 fiscal year, about $63 million less than the state spent four years ago.
Connecticut isn't the only state that recently made progress on this front. Tennessee also drastically reduced the number of children living in group homes.
In 2000, 28 percent of children entering the Tennessee foster care system were placed into one of these facilities. Now, more than 90 percent live in family settings.
Children's Rights, a national advocacy group, forced the Tennessee and Connecticut child welfare systems to make these changes by filing separate class action lawsuits against the states.
In January, Children's Rights filed a federal lawsuit against South Carolina on behalf of 11 foster care children.
The South Carolina complaint cites federal data that shows South Carolina places its youngest foster children in group homes and institutions at a higher rate than any other state in the country.
Ira Lustbader, the litigation director of Children's Rights, called both Tennessee and Connecticut success stories.
“That takes a strong shift in priority to recognize that (group homes are) harming kids,” Lustbader said. “South Carolina has just stubbornly not taken that on for whatever reason.”
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.