Iran Nazario provided keynote remarks for a conference sponsored by Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families (DCF). The day-long convening of youth development practitioners addressed a seminal question: how do we strengthen a young person’s network of love?

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Mr. Nazario identifies with the population of in-risk youth that DCF serves, and relayed that “all youth are searching for connection and searching for family. If there’s an absence, they will create family outside of family – and that’s where we come in.”

Since 2006, Mr. Nazario has led the COMPASS Peacebuilders, a group of men and women who share tenets of his own story and his passion for helping young people. Diego Lopez and Janet Rice, two COMPASS Peacebuilders, joined Mr. Nazario on stage for a panel discussion, with subsequent remarks from the Junior Peacebuilders. Each discussed strategies to connect with youth and all cited the importance of building relationships.

Building (and sustaining) relationships is exactly what DCF is working so hard to do. Led by Commissioner Joette Katz, the department has joined a nationwide effort to maintain a child’s natural support structures, particularly if a case warrants removal. The goal, according to DCF administrator Kristina Stevens, is to find someone within the circle of support that can provide appropriate care.

“The historic belief that the apple doesn’t fall from the tree isn’t the case,” states Ms. Stevens. “And the prospect of losing everything – your parents, your siblings, and your neighborhood – is incredibly traumatic for a child. More often than not, we’re able to convene a team of people connected to that young person, and find a solution that maintains those important family connections.”

This commitment to kinship care cannot be fully achieved without first acknowledging the over-representation of minority families in the legal system. Previous legal involvement once completely precluded participation in the placement process, perpetuating a cycle of disparity and disproportionality. In a recent CT viewpoints piece, Commissioner Katz writes that “the persistent history of racial injustice means that many of our families, if automatically rejected by the department as a placement resource, would only have the injustice further perpetuated and, worse still, have the unfairness further hurt the children then deprived of family entirely as a result.”

DCF now considers relatives who may have a prior record by initiating a kinship waiver process. The process is rigorous, requiring a series of assessments and meetings, and approval by the Commissioner. To date, it has yielded promising results: since 2000, the cases of children in DCF care have dropped by half. And, as Ms. Katz cites, in a study conducted of children placed in homes with waivers, children “were (1) less likely to suffer maltreatment, (2) more likely to benefit from a timely re-unification, adoption or transfer of guardianship, (3) more likely to be placed together with siblings, (4) more likely to receive parental visits, and (5) more likely to receive timely multi-disciplinary exams.”

Kinship care is not without its challenges.  Success stories are a team effort. DCF coordinates a plan between youth, family members, and caregiver support teams. Community affiliated agencies like COMPASS can fill in the gaps, particularly in brokering relationships. “COMPASS is extraordinary,” notes Ms. Stevens. It is a lifeline for kids. I don’t think you can get a more community affiliated and grassroots organization. It lends a level of credibility, partnership, and engagement.”

For the most disconnected juvenile population, COMPASS Peacebuilders offers a sort of revival. Steven Smith is a program manager for DCF’s Adolescent and Juvenile Services. Typically, DCF works with about 245 of the state’s highest risk juvenile cases, placed by the court system in The Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS), private residential treatment centers and group homes (or juvenile detention). For Mr. Smith and his colleagues, restoring the oft tenuous bonds is a priority.

“The value of a program like COMPASS Peacebuilders is their ability to reconnect youth. They foster linkages and bonds between family, community, and school, in a way that eases the transition back to their home and community and ensures a more successful and enduring reentry

[re-entry (or a more permanent placement possible)],” he concludes.

Restoring connection and belief in youth, particularly ones who are most disconnected, is no easy task. “Youth change when they are ready,” acknowledges Diego Lopez. “I don’t force change. I work with them, and once we establish a relationship, I just love them.”

COMPASS Peacebuilder Janet Rice agrees. The sentiment of kinship is already embedded at Peacebuilders. “When youth enter our program, they don’t just get me as a COMPASS Peacebuilder. They get a whole host of aunts and uncles – the entire COMPASS team – and they become part of our family, too.”