Katz: ‘We should not be satisfied’ with state’s care of children

Joette Katz told state lawmakers Tuesday she plans to cut bureaucracy and make it easier for relatives to care for neglected children as steps toward ending 20 years of federal court supervision of the Department of Children and Families.

“We should not be satisfied with the department’s current way of doing business,” the former state Supreme Court justice told a panel of lawmakers during her confirmation hearing at the state Capitol.

Just two weeks on the job as acting commissioner, Katz came to the Capitol with a long list of what needs to change at DCF. For starters, she said the central office staff–361 of 3,456 full-time employees–has to be trimmed.

“It’s not about laying off people, it’s about better utilizing these very talented people,” she said.

Reducing some of the bureaucracy at DCF, Katz says will give the caseworkers dealing directly with children the ability to make more decisions. Right now, she said, staffers need five to seven signatures to approve many actions.


DCF nominee Joette Katz

“My goal is to create five mini-DCFs” across the state, she said.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said he has long heard complaints about the DCF bureaucracy.

“DCF is often identified as the most hierarchical agency,” he said.

Eight commissioners before Katz have failed to reform the state’s $867 million bureaucracy enough to end federal court supervision. U.S. District Court Judge Christopher F. Droney last September rejected the previous administration’s request to end oversight, saying the state is still falling short of their responsibilities to meet children’s needs.

The court monitor’s most recent quarterly report on the agency shows the state is still far from reaching numerous benchmarks, such as reducing the number of children in large group homes and recruiting and retaining enough foster parents to meet demand.

Katz said she will soon propose relaxing the rules imposed on relatives who want to care for family members in their homes. Two regulations that too often disqualify children in DCF custody from being placed with their relatives, she said, are minimum requirements for the size of bedrooms and limits on the ages of children who sleep in the same room.

“I just read a file over the weekend that made my hair on fire,” she said about a woman whose granddaughter is in DCF custody, but her home didn’t pass the DCF inspection. “If you’re the grandmother, you are the best person for this child.”

A report by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s transition team also addressed the problem. “DCF regulations and practice are barriers to kinship care; resulting in the number of DCF children living in relative foster care to fall well below the national average,” the report said.

The state is required by a federal court consent decree to find and notify family members of a child who has been taken into DCF custody. The agency has met that requirement for the last five years, but advocates say far too few children are actually placed with relatives.

Katz was also asked by lawmakers whether she intends to close Riverview Hospital, which houses about 215 children with psychological issues throughout the year at a cost of $2,188 a day, according to their most recent report.

“I don’t see it on this year’s agenda,” Katz responded. “We are still talking about children in crisis… When we have providers in place can I finally nail that coffin closed.”

Child advocates and Katz say if the state begins closing institutions before other facilities are available, more children would be sent out of state.

Katz told lawmakers Tuesday there are currently 367 children living out-of-state, and she said she intends to figure out how to bring more of them home.

“It’s absolutely essential we get as many of those children back,” Katz said.

During her first full day on the job last week, she said sent an email to all the state’s providers to ascertain what type of services they have room to provide and what she needs to do to get them to serve children with problem sexual and arson behavior, which are those that are sent out of state.

“It not just about bringing them back,” she said. “We have to have a place for them. If it were just about the beds they would be here.”

Following the 90 minute questioning of Katz, lawmakers on the panel unanimously approved her nomination. She is not expected to face any opposition in getting her final confirmation vote in the state Senate.

“People from both sides of the aisle feel like it’s a whole new day for this troubled agency,” Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein said following the hearing.

Her confirmation may be a breeze, but Katz told the lawmakers she faces huge battles in the near future.

“I am going to need some legislative buy in for my ideas,” she said. “I am not worried about being criticized, what I am worried about is having the tools and ability to do this job.”

Both Malloy and advocates have said the issues that face DCF do not stem from the lack of money, as was the problem outlined in the original class-action lawsuit filed in 1989 on behalf of “Juan F” and other children in state custody. Since then the agency’s budget has increased significantly.

Katz told the panel she promises not to ask for more money from the state for the next two years.

“I understand there is no more money, nor will I be asking you for more money,” she told the Sen. Anthony Musto, D-Trumbull,  the co-chair of the Human Services Committee and the vice chair of the Select Committee on Children.

Musto said he wants DCF to devote more money to programs to prevent children from ever needing to enter DCF care in the first place.

“It does cost some money and that was the big hang up,” he said, noting that these programs are his “biggest priority.”

Katz said she completely supports these programs and said she intends to ask the “financial wizards” in her agency to start finding savings by reorganizing and to seek every new revenue opportunity from philanthropists and the federal government to direct more money for these preventative programs.

“It costs a lot less to pay someone’s electric or heat bills than to take five children out of their home and place them in foster care” because their parents have been determined to be neglecting them, she said.