As children across the country struggle with growing mental health needs, Connecticut Children’s Council lawmakers plan to address issues with the state’s children’s mental health system, child care and foster care.
The committee will begin meeting during a transition period for the state’s Department of Children and Families. Former Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes announced her departure late last year after more than 30 years at DCF, and Gov. Ned Lamont nominated former Deputy Commissioner for Administration Jody Hill-Lily. Jodi Hill-Lilly) to fill the position of commissioner.
DCF is responsible for caring for some of the state’s most vulnerable populations (foster children) and provides or assists with other services for children, such as mental health care. Commissioners in this department have the opportunity to make a quick and lasting impact on families and children across the state.
Leaders of the Legislature’s Children’s Committee say they will also look for ways to support children’s mental health as Connecticut continues to grapple with increased behavioral health needs since the pandemic. They also plan to work on food insecurity and regulations for summer camps and child care facilities.
The state agency that meets children’s needs has proposed changes to laws governing foster care placements and adoptions, as well as early child care. Lamont proposes cutting application fees for home child care licenses.
“Those three things I talked about — child care, food and summer camps — I know they’re big projects, and the rest of the meeting we’re looking at things that really don’t have a lot of budget,” said Wilton, co-chair of the Children’s Committee Democratic Sen. Ceci Maher said. “These are the big shiny things I want to see. These are the things that inspire me to accomplish because I know they will have the greatest impact on children. “
Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Avon, the committee’s ranking member, said she wants to enact regulations for summer camps and adjust the complaint process. She said she also wants to investigate recent high-profile cases about problems within DCF, including reports of abuse and other problems at the Harwinton group home.
The Office of the Children’s Advocate recently released a report outlining issues in caring for children who have experienced multiple traumas and have complex mental health care needs. Children’s advocate Sarah Egan said the state’s strained mental health system could be one of the main challenges facing the new commissioner.
“I don’t expect perfection,” Egan said. “I don’t expect things to go wrong. I don’t expect everything to go right the first time. We want, always want, to be able to have a structure that is honest, constructive, real-time analysis of what’s working and what’s not working, and good communication about what’s working for our children who need it most. reach as much consensus as possible on the policy.”
She said she would like to see more transparency from DCF, including public reporting on how the agency serves children, increased oversight by a state advisory committee and regular meetings with OCA to discuss challenges in the system.
Over the past several legislative sessions, the Children’s Committee has focused on supporting children’s mental health. In recent years, an increasing number of parents and children have reported behavioral health problems, including eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.
Among other legislative proposals, DCF is asking for a change in the law so that the state’s emergency crisis centers receive insurance and ambulance certification from the agency. The state expects that in the coming years, most crisis centers designed to serve children with emergency mental health needs will be funded through insurance.
The DCF report noted that these centers may also need general fund funds in the future. They were initially funded through COVID relief funds.
Maher said she also wants to work to improve child care services, especially early education.
Early childcare is difficult for many families to access due to high costs and fewer available places. The child care workforce has also shrunk since the outbreak, in part due to low wages.
Care from birth to three years of age is especially important for a child’s brain development. Patricia Cole, senior policy director at Zero to Three, said at a training for reporters earlier this month that early connections with caregivers help organize their brains, which build up to their every second. One million connections.
“So that’s where we can have the biggest impact on our children … by making childcare so that it’s not only accessible, but affordable. So when we need the workforce, we need to make sure We have enough people working in the state.”
A lack of childcare makes it difficult for many people, especially women, to become part of the workforce.
Seminara said she hopes to create regulations for summer camps and ensure follow-up on any complaints. A CT Insider report last year showed that summer camps in Connecticut rarely face disciplinary action for rule violations. The report comes after parents complained about a camp in Lebanon where staff allegedly yelled at children and threatened to withhold food.
“I think we should follow up and make sure the complaint is corrected,” Seminara said.
Maher said she also wants to look at ways to ensure children have access to universal breakfast so they can learn more effectively.
Meanwhile, lawmakers said confirmation hearings for the gubernatorial candidate to lead DCF could begin early in the session.
Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said he met with Hill-Lilly and thought she would be a good fit for the job.
“I think Jody will continue to do a great job, she has her own vision, her own plan and a way to build on the success of the two commissioners before her,” he said.
But he said it’s a difficult job to do. “When you have an institution like DCF, nothing is perfect, and when things are not perfect, a lot of times it leads to tragedy,” Duff said.
Seminara and Maher also said they were hopeful about Hill-Lilly’s appointment and felt she seemed qualified for the job.
Seminara said she hopes the new commissioner will take seriously recent reports from the Office of the Child Advocate, especially the recent Report on Harwinton Group Home.