Fasano: Katz’s reappointment as DCF Commissioner is a Mistake [Courant]

December 26, 2014

Hartford Courant
HARTFORD – Joette Katz, the controversial child-protection commissioner whose bold moves have made enemies and engendered deep support, has been reappointed to lead what is perhaps the most high-profile department in state government, the governor’s office said.

Under Katz, the former state Supreme Court justice, the Department of Children and Families has seen a 55 percent drop in the number of children living in group care and a 21 percent increase in the number of kids placed in foster care with stable relatives – which mirrors a national trend in child protection.

“Commissioner Katz has proven that she is someone with the strong leadership capabilities that are required for this important position, along the compassion to see that the most vulnerable among us are protected. She has shown she has the experience to lead a team of dedicated staff who strive to ensure that Connecticut’s children and families are healthy, safe, smart and strong,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said.

Unlike her predecessors, Katz has literally taken a hands-on role, personally approving or denying every request to place a child into a residential setting or to a program out of state. Overall, there are 764 fewer children in state care, and 96 percent fewer placed outside Connecticut, than there were when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy first appointed her in January 2011.

But the department also experienced a spike in child maltreatment deaths, the state Child Advocate is investigating the use of restraints at two facilities, one of them a controversial secure program for troubled girls. And Katz’s decision to seek the transfer of a 16-year-old transgender girl to adult prison without criminal charges drew international outrage from civil-rights groups.

The group-home industry has railed against Katz’s policies of favoring family and foster-care services rather than facility placements, and some group homes have closed. But Katz maintains that there are as many as 200 open beds in the remaining group home system – more than enough space for children needing a higher level of treatment.

While supporting reduced reliance on residential facilities, advocates have said that DCF is not reinvesting enough money in foster-care and family-support services to handle the exodus from group care. And pediatricians, child psychiatrists and others have noted that children with urgent mental-health needs are often languishing in hospital emergency rooms for lack of specialized programs. DCF is the lead agency for child mental-health treatment in Connecticut.

Katz has said that a behavioral health plan released this fall in response to the Sandy Hook school shootings will result in a more responsive and accessible system for children — but advocates say the emergency-room crisis and some other pressing problems are not being addressed fast enough. The department has also been pressed to improve the way it tracks the performance of its programs, recidivism for juvenile offenders, and outcomes for teenagers in its care.

Katz on Tuesday welcomed the news of her reappointment.

“It has been a unique privilege to work with our children, our families, our staff and our stakeholders in a remarkable effort to support and strengthen families to do their best in raising children,” Katz said. “To be given the opportunity to continue to serve Connecticut as we continue our reforms in partnership with our dedicated staff is a tremendous honor.”
State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, co-chair of the Children’s Committee, said Katz “has done an incredible job … Her focus and courage has improved the lives of children in DCF care.”

State Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, the incoming Senate minority leader, said the reappointment is a mistake.

“DCF has had significant problems under Commissioner Katz’s leadership, and I believe (she) has been pushing DCF in the wrong direction. That said, I believe DCF employees have been doing an excellent job …,” Fasano said.

Katz has put in place a less adversarial approach to child welfare, opting to work out problems with families in minor or moderate neglect cases, rather than open forensic-style investigations – which are now reserved for instances of abuse or serious neglect that endangers children.

The approach is time-consuming and exacerbated a severe shortage of social workers for much of the year.

But Katz has stood firm, saying she didn’t want the department to return to its reactionary practices of past years, where a child’s death could prompt a string of removals, or the overloading of foster care or group homes.

Katz has strengthened and expanded relationships and working arrangements with child-abuse doctors who are now on-call.

Still, tragedies have occurred.

A final review of 2013’s unusually high death toll of infants and toddlers showed child-protection officials, pediatricians and caregivers must pay closer attention to the youngest children in troubled families, the state Office of the Child Advocate concluded.

In her report, Child Advocate Sarah Eagan presented case summaries of some of the 10 homicides of children younger than 3 last year — the highest total in at least a dozen years, and describes another troubling and growing category of infant deaths — unsafe sleeping conditions.

Eagan noted that DCF had open or previous cases with most of the families in which an infant died of unnatural causes.

“In the past couple of years, DCF has continued to place a stronger emphasis on placing children who are in state care out of group settings and with a relatives or others whom the child knows, and to reduce the number being served out-of-state. Commissioner Katz and her team have made a number of changes that are showing results, and I look forward to having her on board to continue this critical work.”

Eagan said the responsibility of reacting to danger signs in families and safeguarding children doesn’t rest solely with DCF and includes doctors, community providers, and other mandated reporters of child abuse. But Eagan said her “review of DCF-involved children or families reveals questions and sometimes significant concerns regarding … ensuring infant safety in high-risk homes.”

“Repeatedly, records did not seem to reflect cognizance of the level of risk for an infant in a home with a substance-abusing care giver,” Eagan reported.

Katz, early in her tenure, predicted that DCF would in very short order extricate itself from the more than 20 years of federal court oversight – a condition stemming from a landmark child-neglect case in the 1980s. But the oversight continues.

In his latest quarterly report, released in October, the Wallingford-based court monitor said DCF has made progress in lowering caseloads and funneling money into neighborhood and family services, and has continued to steer kids away from group care and into more desirable foster homes.

The department, however, still struggles to meet all the needs of the children in its care, move kids out of emergency shelters quickly, complete investigations, and conduct enough home visits, the report stated.

Eighty-five recently hired social-worker trainees are going through the DCF academy and, once trained, will help lower caseloads that ballooned in some cases to more than twice the national standard, Raymond Mancuso, the Wallingford-based court monitor, said in the report.

Social workers who have too many complex cases can’t finish investigations or do meaningful home visits. Mancuso said that “while pockets of high caseloads exist in a few of the regional sites, the number of staff exceeding the caseload standard has been reduced by 50 percent.” He said a spike in abuse and neglect reports to the DCF hotline earlier in the year has eased, but that five or 10 more social workers may be needed.

In the spring, Katz drew widespread scrutiny, when, citing the teenager’s assaultive history, Katz and DCF won permission from a state judge to transfer the 16-year-old transgender girl to adult prison.

Jane Doe, as she is known in court records, had just returned from a Massachusetts program, where she had seriously assaulted a treatment worker. But she was not charged criminally. She was housed by herself in an empty wing at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School for boys in Middletown.

Meanwhile, lawyers for DCF argued in court that the department could no longer care for her because of her history of assaults and aggressive behavior. The fact that she was sent to prison, with no criminal charges pending against her, prompted widespread outrage from children’s advocates and civil rights groups. The American Civil Liberties Union and others argued that DCF as her statutory parent had an obligation to continue to care for her in DCF facilities.

In the summer, Jane Doe was transferred back to DCF care and into the Pueblo unit, a locked DCF treatment facility. The unit had opened in March over objections from advocates, who said, at the very least, more time was needed to shape an effective treatment program there. Katz had successfully argued to the legislature that she needed a place to treat girls who had run away from, or disrupted, every other program they’d been in. Katz said the 12-bed unit had to be locked, so that the girls could remain long enough for the treatment to have an effect

The transgender teenager was transferred back to the empty wing at the training school after she was involved in a fight with three other girls at Pueblo in July. Then, in September, Jane Doe slipped away from a therapy program at Hartford’s Institute of Living after being transported there from the training school.

She was found in good health several hours later, by a Hartford patrol officer, near 517 Park St.

The Courant through the late summer reported on safety concerns among staff at Pueblo and what Eagan and the child advocate’s office viewed as the excessive use of improper restraints. Eagan’s office phoned into DCF’s hotline four separate instances of suspected child abuse by the Pueblo staff after viewing dozens of hours of videotapes of restraints in the unit from April through July.

Katz has stressed that, of the couple of dozen girls who have been through the Pueblo unit, four girls have accounted for 77 percent of the incidents at the facility. Katz said that the unit was otherwise stable and accomplishing its treatment goals. Advocates noted that Katz lobbied to open Pueblo for the purpose of dealing with, and providing treatment to, the most troubled girls in state care.