October 18, 2002
CHILD ABUSE PREVENTION AND PUNISHMENT
By: Saul Spigel, Chief Analyst
You asked for a description of changes in Connecticut law and agency practice over the past five years (1998 to 2002) to prevent and punish child abuse.
Child abuse and neglect prevention takes two courses: preventing abuse or neglect from occurring in the first place (primary prevention) and, once it has occurred, preventing it from happening again (secondary prevention).
Healthy Families Connecticut, a newborn screening and home visiting program, is the state's principal primary prevention program. Begun as a pilot program in 1995 and expanded annually since 1998, it now serves about 5,000 children a year. Other primary prevention initiatives begun in the past five years include programs (1) the legislature created in 2000 and 2001 to help protect abandoned newborns and those born with substance abuse and severe medical conditions and (2) the Department of Children and Families (DCF) has begun to provide families at risk of abusing their children intensive, in-home counseling; parent support and education services; and individualized developmentally appropriate evaluation and treatment in day care settings.
A series of laws enacted since 1998 seek to prevent reoccurrences of abuse or neglect. One law makes the health and safety of an abused child in DCF custody the state's primary concern in planning for his or her future and making reunification decisions. Another seeks to avert cases of boyfriends abusing a single woman's children by requiring DCF caseworkers investigating an abuse complaint involving a single parent to tell the parent about available services and the consequences of failing to protect the child.
DCF began several new programs designed to prevent reoccurrences of abuse. Project SAFE screens abusive parents for substance abuse and offers them treatment. Safe homes provide a place where the agency can stabilize, assess, and plan for children just entering the foster care system and determine whether they can be safely returned home with appropriate services.
In its 2002 session, the legislature (1) increased penalties for most forms of sexual abuse involving minors, (2) extended the statute of limitations for damage suits against sex offenders, and (3) made sexual contact between coaches and instructors and minors a crime. It also added more people to the list of those who must report suspected abuse to DCF.
Healthy Families. Healthy Families Connecticut, administered by the Children's Trust Fund, is the state's principal child abuse primary prevention program. Trained staff at participating birthing hospitals screen all first-time mothers to assess their risk for child abuse and offer those at high risk up to five years of intensive home visiting services. They offer low-risk mothers parenting information, support, and community referrals. The program's Nurturing Program is an intensive 26-week group for parents directly aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect. The curriculum teaches families appropriate expectations, fosters empathetic understanding and strategies for enhancing the well being of children.
Healthy Families began as pilot project in 1995. The legislature established it in law in 1997 (PA 97-288) and has increased its budget incrementally since 1998, from $ 1 to $ 4 million today. It has grown from five to 19 sites during that period, which served approximately 5,000 families in FY 2001-02.
Safe Havens. A 2000 law sought to prevent the tragedy of an infant being left in a dumpster or on a doorstep by a fearful parent. PA 00-207 exempted from prosecution for abandonment or risk of injury to a minor any parent who leaves a newborn with designated hospital emergency room staff. The parent can leave the baby anonymously, although the staff will ask for a medical history. DCF takes custody of the baby, but if the parent changes her or his mind, a bracelet from the hospital will serve as identification in a court reunification process.
High-Risk Newborns. Because they can be extremely difficult to care for, DCF policy classifies infants born with drug involvement or other medical problems as at high risk and requires agency staff to work with the parents, hospital staff, and others in such cases. PA 01-149 required DCF to adopt regulations specifically to involve nurses and others who care for these infants on a daily basis in its planning for them.
Multi-Systemic Therapy. DCF began using multi-systemic therapy with its juvenile justice clients in 1999. This intense in-home family counseling program also works to strengthen the child and family's connection to schools, peers, civic organizations, and other community resources. The results were so positive that the agency is expanding the program to include other families who ask DCF for help with the difficulties they are experiencing.
Therapeutic Child Care. Families at risk for abuse or neglect can take advantage of DCF's 750 therapeutic child day care slots across the state. This program offers center-based services that may include individualized therapeutic and developmentally appropriate evaluation and treatment, parenting training and support, and outreach services.
Parent Education and Support. Working in homes and from schools and other locations, DCF provides parents with tools to more effectively raise their children through education and service coordination, including in-home services. It pays for parent aides who go into homes to provide education and support, role modeling, household management, referral, and service coordination. Its parent aides served 3,226 families in FY 2000-01.
DCF-funded parent education and support centers provide parenting education, support groups, social and recreational activities for parents with their children, drop-in activities, and parenting information. Parent education sessions can range from a one-session workshop to multi-session courses. DCF says these programs served about 2,400 families in FY 2000-01.
Preventing Reoccurrences (Secondary Prevention)
Health and Safety as Primary Concern. When DCF assumes custody of an abused child and places him or her in foster care, it must make reasonable efforts to reunite the family. PA 98-241 made protecting the health and safety of children placed in DCF custody the state's primary concern in planning for their future and making reunification decisions.
The act allows DCF to ask the court that ordered the child into its custody to determine whether reunification is appropriate. It defined circumstances under which the court could find reunification inappropriate. These include the parent: (1) abandoning the child, (2) sexually molesting or exploiting the child, (3) severely abused the child physically, (4) assaulted the child or a sibling causing serious physical injury, or (5) deliberately killed one of the child's siblings.
Protecting Children from Abusive Boyfriends. In 1998, the legislature also responded to several cases of children being abused when their single mothers left them in the care of boyfriends. In order to prevent such situations, PA 98-173 required DCF caseworkers investigating a complaint to tell a single parent (and the noncustodial parent) in writing (1) when her child has been abused; (2) about available services (like child care, emergency shelters, and restraining orders); and (3) that DCF could take custody if she fails to protect the child.
Safe Homes. The 1999 General Assembly appropriated funds for DCF to start a "Safe Homes" program. This initiative provides a place where DCF can stabilize, assess, and plan for children just entering the foster care system in a safe, nurturing environment and determine whether they can be safely returned home with appropriate services. As of June 2002, DCF had established 16 safe homes throughout the state with a capacity of 184 beds. The homes served 1,004 children in FY 2001-02. DCF claims the program has been instrumental in reducing the total number of children in foster and relative care by 15% since 1999.
Substance Abuse Treatment for Abusers. Caregiver substance abuse is involved in nearly three-quarters of abuse and neglect cases. In 1995, DCF began a pilot program with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to offer substance abuse evaluation and treatment to parents who are investigated for maltreatment.
In 2000, the legislature required the agencies to sign a memorandum of understanding formalizing the program. DCF says more than 18,000 adults have been evaluated and tested since 1995, and more than 5,000 have received treatment.
Intensive Family Preservation. DCF's family preservation program provides short-term, in-home help to strengthen families and reduce subsequent maltreatment. The program offers education, counseling, crisis intervention, and other services.
Multidisciplinary Investigation Teams
Teamwork in investigating reports of serious abuse or neglect could lead to better prosecution of abusers. In 1998, the legislature required DCF, prosecutors, and local police to work together with health and mental health professionals on selected cases and, when needed, a new special State Police unit (PA 98-241).
Predators who knowingly use Internet chat rooms to lure a child under age 16 into prohibited sexual activity face a year in prison, a fine of up to $ 2,000, or both in addition to any penalties for the underlying sexual offense. A second violation means up to five years in prison, a $ 5,000 fine, or both and anyone convicted for a third time could face up to 10 years imprisonment, a $ 10,000 fine, or both, again in addition to the penalties for the sex crime (PA 99-113).
Sexual Abuse Crimes
Revelations about sexual abuses by priests and athletic coaches led legislators in 2002 to enact new laws on sexual abuse crimes and the statute of limitations for prosecuting and suing abusers.
Increased Penalties and Statute of Limitations. PA 02-138 increases the penalties for a wide range of sex crimes involving minors under age 16, making some of them class A felonies punishable by 10 to 25 years imprisonment, up to a $ 20,000 fine, or both with a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. It extends, in most cases, the statute of limitations for (1) prosecuting sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, or sexual assault of a minor from two to 30 years after the victim reaches age 18 or up to five years after he notifies authorities of the crime and
(2) filing a personal injury lawsuit based on the crime from 17 to 30 years after he turns age 18. And, it eliminates the statute of limitations for suing for damages caused by sexual assault when the assailant is convicted of 1st degree sexual assault or aggravated sexual assault.
The act also prohibits courts from issuing an order or approving a settlement that prevents or restricts anyone from reporting to DCF or the police allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation, or assault of a minor.
Sexual Abuse by Coaches or Instructors. A new law (PA 02-106) makes it a crime for an athletic coach or a person, like a piano teacher, who provides intensive, ongoing instruction to engage in sexual intercourse or have sexual contact with (1) a student receiving coaching or instruction in a high school or (2) anyone under age 18 receiving such coaching or instruction. It makes sexual intercourse under these circumstances 2nd degree assault, which is punishable by one to 10 years in prison (with a nine-month mandatory minimum sentence), a fine of up to $ 10,000, or both. It makes sexual contact under these circumstances 4th degree sexual assault, punishable by up to a year in prison, a fine of up to $ 2,000, or both.
Mandated Reporters. The legislature increased the range of people who, because of their occupations, must report to DCF or the police when they believe a child has been abused or neglected. In 2002, it added to the list of "mandated reporters" juvenile and adult probation and parole officers, intramural and interscholastic coaches, emergency medical service providers, licensed professional counselors, certified alcohol drug abuse counselors, DCF employees, paid child care providers in group day care homes, and Department of Public Health employees who license day care facilities and youth camps (PA 02-138 and 106).
PA 02-138 also reduces, from 24 to 12 hours, (1) the maximum time that mandated reporters have to orally report suspected cases of abuse or neglect to DCF or the police and (2) the time DCF has after receiving a report of sexual or serious abuse to notify the police and prosecutors. It also broadens the circumstances under which reports must be made to include cases where the reporter has reasonable cause to suspect or believe a child has been placed in imminent risk of serious harm by anyone, not just those responsible for the child's health, welfare, or care.