Sen. Kane to CT DCF Commissioner Katz: “You failed on the first four years.” (Hartford Courant)

February 11, 2015

Article as it appeared on
HARTFORD – Two Republican senators roundly criticized her leadership, but Joette Katz held firm against independent oversight and at the end of a long afternoon was unanimously endorsed in a bi-partisan vote of the legislature’s nominating committee for a second term as child-protection commissioner.

In a state that has seen an increase in infant fatalities, advocates have increasingly called for an independent ombudsman for the sprawling, $800 million-a-year Department of Children and Families, which remains under federal oversight.

State Sens. Rob Kane and Len Fasano on Wednesday grilled Katz, the former state Supreme Court justice and criminal public defender, on her objections to having more “outside eyes” on the agency charged with protecting the state’s most vulnerable, needy, and troubled children and teenagers. The committee endorsed Katz 8-0 with only House members eligible to vote on the House resolution. The full General Assembly must still vote on her nomination.

Kane, of Woodbury, also pressed Katz on the use of prone restraints at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School for boys and the Pueblo unit for girls. Katz agreed that in the case of a teen girl with asthma who was restrained on the floor by staff members, “There’s no question it should never happen in those circumstances.”

Katz said that the use of the restraints, the focus of a probe by the state Office of the Child Advocate, has resulted in the re-training of some staff members and at least one firing. She also said she has hired a nationally known forensic psychiatrist to identify reforms in a “top to bottom review” of CJTS and Pueblo, both in Middletown.

“It’s a consultant that you’re paying, right?” asked Kane, portraying DCF as an insulated agency.

Katz said all large government agencies should be able to police themselves, and she said she constantly asks for input from myriad advocacy groups, national foundations, and child-protection experts locally and around the country. She said the child advocate’s office already has the authority to review DCF’s cases and actions, and that her department’s own ombudsman’s office gives her an unfiltered view of complaints and grievances by parents, service providers, and youth under DCF care.

Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, however, has called for an independent ombudsman, and Fasano, of North Haven, said he found it “unfathomable” that Katz would not be receptive to the added oversight. Katz said she would immediately begin to send more complaints and other information to the child advocate and the juvenile public defender’s office on a weekly basis, but maintained that CJTS had had an ombudsman a few years ago, “and it didn’t change the world.”

Katz was also questioned closely by Rep. Cecilia Buck-Taylor, R-New Milford, on why Katz pressed for the transfer last year of a 16-year-old transgender girl to adult prison with no new charges pending – a move that drew outrage nationally from civil-rights groups.

The teen, known as Jane Doe, had an assaultive history. Advocates said DCF should be able to care for her anyway; Katz said her behavior was out of control. Katz and the agency lawyers invoked an obscure juvenile-transfer statute that hadn’t been used more than twice in 20 or more years, and a judge approved the transfer after a trial. The teen has been back in DCF care since the summer.

“I didn’t do it lightly,” said Katz, first nominated by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in January 2011 and renominated last month. “And I’m not going to walk that back now.”

She told Buck-Taylor that DCF social workers and state correction officials “built a cocoon” around Jane Doe when she was at the York Correctional Institute for women in Niantic, “and she was successful enough to allow us to bring her back.”

Despite a couple of setbacks, Jane Doe “is doing incredibly well now,” Katz said. The teen has a room in her own wing at the CJTS boys facility, and Katz said she has visited and bonded with her, just as she said she had with Cassandra C., the 17-year-old Windsor Locks teen who was placed in temporary DCF custody after the teen and her mother refused chemotherapy for Cassandra’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Kane told Katz bluntly that he believes “you failed on the first four years.”

State Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Cheshire, co-chair of the Children’s Committee, was just as certain in her remarks as a guest of the nominating committee Wednesday that Katz had improved the department immensely, had distinguished herself on the national child-protection front, and had implemented a blueprint for the reform of children’s mental-health treatment.

Under Katz, DCF has dramatically reduced the number of children in the less desirable group-care settings, increased the number of children in foster care with relatives and kin, and has brought home all but a dozen children from out-of-state facilities, compared with more than 360 kids in outside placements when Katz took office,

DCF has cultivated a less adversarial approach with families and is far more apt to work with parents than to remove the children, unless there are safety concerns. Katz said there are now 88 boys at CJTS, down from over 150 in June 2014. She said 150 new social workers are beginning to take on full caseloads, and that problems in the area of treatment planning and serving children with complex needs will lessen in the coming months.

But the department has seen a troubling increase in infant fatalities in families with DCF involvement, particularly in the area of unsafe sleeping conditions. The department has begun a public awareness campaign and new risk-assessments for families. The inappropriate use of restraints and seclusion still occurs, and the department remains under federal oversight despite the quick exit Katz promised when she first arrived.