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Supportive Housing for Families: Changing Lives for Children and Parents

“Janice” (not her real name to protect her privacy) knows her life could have turned out very differently. The fathers of her two oldest children died years ago–one from a heroin overdose and the other from alcohol poisoning. The children, now ages 12 and 21, are living with Janice’s parents in Litchfield County. This is where Janice left them after being overwhelmed by her substance abuse.

“When you do crack, you can’t think right,” she said. “When you are in the midst of addiction, you can’t work, and you can’t function.”

Years later, she gave birth to her third child. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) eventually received allegations that Janice was using substances while her daughter was present. The cycle of neglect was now continuing with another child. Janice tested positive for illegal drugs. This factor, combined with her long history of substance use, the loss of her other two children and Janice’s unwillingness to seek help, resulted in her daughter being assessed as unsafe and immediate interventions were necessary. The Department gave Janice a choice: “enter a substance use treatment program or your daughter will be removed.” 

“A change had to come,” Janice said. Now the urgent hunt was on for a treatment program that would let her keep her daughter with her while she worked towards her recovery.Commissioner Housing Statement

Janice eventually arrived at the APT Foundation, a residential substance use treatment program in New Haven. “They admitted me that night,” Janice said. During the day, while Janice was participating in the program, her daughter went to daycare.  “For the first 60 days, I got a chance to clear my head and get to know my child.”

Janice remained in the New Haven program for 10 months. Then came the difficult transition to the “real world.”  The APT Foundation continued to provide clinical support to Janice after she left the residential program. 

Now she needed a place to live.

Janice’s DCF social worker reached out to the Supportive Housing for Families (SHF) program. SHF is one of many programs at The Connection, a Middletown-based non-profit agency. SHF is a DCF-funded family reunification and preservation program that provides intensive home-based case management, housing assistance, vocational services, temporary housing subsidy and other needed resources for families at risk of having their children placed in foster care due to unstable housing.  Case Managers work with each family to develop individualized service plans including connecting families to substance use and mental health treatment, child day care and parenting support services.  

Debra Struzinski, one of the program’s directors, said, “The program uses motivational interviewing and family teaming to engage and empower families. Home-based intensive case management and housing as an intervention help families stabilize and support change.”

In 2012, the Department of Children and Families was one of five jurisdictions awarded a competitive five-year, $5 million dollar grant from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Building on the strong history of SHF’s demonstrated evidence of favorable outcomes since 1998, when SHF was first implemented, this project allowed SHF to conduct a randomized control trial.  The study compared child-welfare involved families who received services in the SHF program to “business as usual” with DCF.  Strikingly, over a two-year period of follow-up, 91% of the children in the SHF program remained with their families compared to only 60% of the children with DCF “business as usual.”  Of the children in foster care, 30% in the SHF program were reunified versus only 9% of the children with DCF “business as usual.” 

Janice started her new life when she moved into an apartment secured for her by Supportive Housing for Families (SHF).  She received the stable housing she needed while continuing with her substance use and behavioral health counseling.

Janice said that while the residential program was essential, as it gave her the time to make progress in her recovery, the continuation of treatment services was equally important for sustaining her success.  “I encourage people to go to aftercare,” she said. “Stress will happen. But what I learned is that you can’t use drugs as a coping skill.”

Shortly after moving into her apartment, Janice was assigned a new DCF social worker, Nate Moore, a 19-year veteran at the Department. He said the stable housing is so important because without it, other services to address substance use, mental health or employment are not going to be as effective. “When a client is transient, they can’t focus on their other needs,” Moore said. “In terms of engaging a client with other services that they need, everything is put on hold until housing stabilizes.”

Or as Struzinski said, “It’s hard to move forward without housing.  A family’s basic needs have to be met before focusing on recovery and other needed supports.”

Social Worker Moore said that “Janice was an ideal client in many ways. She was really motivated and she made the most out of what she was getting.”

Janice made a point to say that families involved with DCF should see the experience as an opportunity to improve their lives. “I could have ended up in the streets,” Janice said. “Now, my child has everything she needs, including attending a magnet school. Her needs are met.”

“DCF has been nothing but a blessing,” Janice added, “without them, who knows where my child would be or where I would be.  I tell people to use the program – use DCF – tell them what your needs are and, eventually, it’s going to come through.”

Janice and her daughter are home, together, for the holidays!