Katz grilled by panel, Fasano Says Agency has Moved Backwards [JI]

February 13, 2015

Article as it Appeared in the Journal Inquirer
Controversial Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz heard plenty of criticism during a public hearing Wednesday for her renomination, but ultimately saw no opposition in the vote to move along her bid for the job.

Republican lawmakers questioned why Katz would oppose the creation of an independent ombudsmen when those who work with the agency are asking lawmakers for such an office.

Democrats, meanwhile, credited Katz for leaving her post as chief justice of the state Supreme Court to take on a department with a long history of problems.

“I believe that DCF has gone through a lot of issues and problems … however I believe that Commissioner Katz has done a lot of good work in trying to straighten that agency out,” Rep. Edwin Vargas, D-Hartford and committee vice chairman, said.

Katz told the committee she wants to continue overhauling DCF, most notably when it comes to dealing with deaths of children who have had agency involvement.

She said a recently completed study of 124 deaths since January 2005 involving children up to age 3 with some agency involvement found that sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, was the most frequent cause.

Other common causes were medical complications, unsafe sleep behaviors or conditions, and injuries. Katz said the department will use the study to teach those caring for newborns, infants, and toddlers in DCF custody.

She also said DCF needs to improve access to behavioral and mental health services, especially as the department reduces its use of group home placements.

Katz said DCF has significantly reduced its use of group or congregate homes and out-of-state placements, and now must improve access to services at schools and pediatric centers. She also said the savings from reduced placements allows for that access.

Some Republicans questioned whether the reduced use of group home placements is the best idea, as some children are likely better off in that environment.

Katz said she believes that children are typically better off with their parents or other family members, but said she still will allow placements when necessary and denied rumors that she issued an edict to close facilities.

Republicans were more critical of Katz in her opposition to proposed legislation that would create an independent ombudsmen to monitor DCF and field complaints.

Only representatives could vote on the nomination because it’s a House bill, but Senators were allowed to comment.

Senate Minority Leader Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, said he proposed creating the office after the Office of the Children’s Advocate and other groups said they wanted it.

“The fundamental problem that I’ve been hearing is people are afraid of your agency,” he told Katz. “They’re afraid to raise their voice, they’re afraid to ask questions, they’re afraid of the agency and what you as a commissioner will do to them, and I’ve heard that.”

Katz, though, said that people with complaints could go to any of the advocacy groups or one of the ombudsmen within the department. She also said she eliminated a similar position in the past because it wasn’t cost effective, estimating it would cost $100,000 annually.

Fasano also said the most recent report from federal court monitor Raymond Mancuso found that DCF has moved backward in a number of areas.

But Katz said Mancuso is able to review only 54 of DCF’s more than 7,000 cases at a time because of limited resources, and also said his report has a “time lag.” She told the committee that DCF has recently hired roughly 150 employee as case workers.

She added that some of the problems cited in the report are the result of limited access that adults get when they become too old for DCF to step in and help.

Katz also defended DCF’s handling of Jane Doe, the teen who in May was deemed “too dangerous” by a judge for child-welfare facilities and allowed her to be placed at York Correctional Institution in East Lyme.

She was moved to a psychiatric facility a few weeks later, but continued to make news during the summer for various problems, including physical altercations with staff and other residents.

DCF has said little publicly about the case since the summer, and Katz said the teen has been doing “incredibly well” since the attention dropped. She also defended her decision to ask for court approval to move Jane Doe to the state’s women’s prison.

“I felt that she had needs that we could not meet,” Katz said. “She had behaviors that we could not control or attend to.”

Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Committee on Children, didn’t reference the incident, but credited Katz with her handling of an agency that deals with difficult situations.

“Your job, in many ways, is the most difficult to be the commissioner of,” she said.