Challenges for Katz at confirmation, then an endorsement

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz

The sweeping changes made over the last four years by Joette Katz, the leader of the Department of Children and Families, drew mixed reviews Wednesday at a hearing that nonetheless ended with a unanimous vote in favor of her confirmation.

“I appreciate your work,” Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Committee on Children, told Katz.

“I commend you,” echoed Rep. Claire L. Janowski, D-Vernon, the House leader of the legislature’s Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee.

Other legislators, parents and advocates voiced concerns and criticism.

“I think you failed on the first four years,” Sen. Rob J. Kane, R-Watertown, said.

“People are afraid of your agency,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, told Katz, saying care providers, parents and children were hesitant to bring forward their problems with the agency.

The committee voted 8-0 to recommend that the House of Representatives confirm Katz’s reappointment by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Only House members on the joint committee could vote, so Fasano and Kane could register their dissatisfaction only through their comments and questions.

Several advocates testified before legislators last week that more outside oversight of the $827.6 million agency is needed to investigate complaints made by parents and children in the system.

“The only person that says ‘no’ to this is you. That is striking to me. I am concerned as a legislator when everyone else says we need it…They are saying this [setup] is not working,” Fasano said.

Peter T. Szymonik said he felt he had nowhere to turn when DCF launched what he felt was an unfair investigation of him for neglecting his children.

“No one responded to my concern,” he testified about issues he had with the social worker assigned to his case.

The state does have an Office of the Child Advocate, and there is a federal court monitor that routinely make public problems in the department, and Katz said that oversight is enough.

“Everyone is picking on us,” Katz told legislators. “Everyone is looking at us.”

Much of DCF’s work is shielded by law from public view to protect the identifies of children involved in its cases, so oversight is largely limited to the analyses done by the small staffs of the child advocate and court monitor.

The list of issues they have recently raised is long, including:

  • The use of restraints at state-run juvenile jails
  • The lack of available programs for abused and neglected children in the community who otherwise would have lived in group homes
  • The too-frequent failure to meet the health, education and mental health needs of foster children
  • Unacceptable caseloads for social workers because of state budget cuts and unfilled positions
  • Children ending up in emergency rooms when their mental health needs go unmet
  • A spike in the deaths of children the agency has investigated because of allegations of abuse and neglect

Katz, confident her initiatives are working, said she is moving ahead full force with implementing her priority of keeping children and their families together in the community.

“I have never met a child I didn’t want to see living at home,” she told the committee. She added that she would like to end the use of group homes but doesn’t think that’s realistic. She has set a goal of having no more than 10 percent of foster children in such facilities.

During her tenure, Katz has decreased the number of children living in group homes by 781. Only one of every six foster kids lives in a group home now compared to nearly one in three four years ago. And when children are sent to a group home, very few are now sent out of state.

Katz, who left a secure job as a justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court to lead the state agency that arguably draws more criticism than any other, said she has no regrets.

“It may be the hardest job in state government but it has also been the most rewarding,” she said.

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