The young men having dinner with Joette Katz recently may not have had fond memories of their own courtroom experiences, but they couldn’t help but be impressed with her stories of life as a judge.
“Oh man, that’s what I want to be. I want to be a judge,” said one, a 15-year-old inmate at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.
And what about Katz’s new job, as head of the Department of Children and Families? Had his experiences in DCF custody made him want to run the agency someday?
“Absolutely not. That’s a hard job,” he replied.
That pretty much summed up the reactions of most people when it was announced in November that Katz was leaving her position as a justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court for the rough-and-tumble of running an agency that draws more and harsher public scrutiny than any other in state government.
The latest example came within days of Katz’s starting the job, with the disclosurethat a young woman abducted as an infant from a New York City hospital had lived in Bridgeport for years and had come to the attention of DCF as early as 1997. In 2005 DCF became aware that her birth certificate was fraudulent, but it was not until the victim took action herself that she was reunited with her biological family.
Beyond the periodic embarrassments, however, is the larger problem confronting the agency: For more than 20 years, DCF has been under federal court supervision after advocates filed a successful class action lawsuit claiming the state failed to provide adequate care for the children in its custody. Repeated efforts to persuade the court that the problems have been solved have been rejected.
So how does Katz plan to fix this vast, troubled agency?
She is starting by traveling across the state visiting foster care providers, congregate care homes, regional offices and the juvenile detention facility for boys in Middletown to launch what she calls a “new era” at the $887 million agency that has 4,700 children in its custody and thousands more receiving services on any given day.
“I’m telling everyone we have to start taking educated risks. There is a real reluctance here to do anything outside the box. We have been risk-averse for too long,” she said.
She’s also telling them the problems at DCF won’t be solved with more money. “There is no more money, she says, referring to the massive deficit confronting the state.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is proposing giving the agency an additional $85.6 million over the next two years, but not for any new initiatives. Almost all of the increase is to cover higher living expenses for foster, residential and adoption services.
Katz said change doesn’t have to cost money; the agency just needs a new approach in how it is operating.
Up first on her list: Returning phone calls.
“Frankly, that’s treating people fairly,” she said, noting that when she met last year’s Foster Parent of the Year, his first complaint to her was even he can’t get the department to return his calls. “You know things are bad when the best foster parent can’t even get a call back.”
Providers, family members and foster parents have long criticized the agency for this breakdown in communication. In a series of forums with foster parents conducted in 2008, University of Connecticut researchers frequently heard complaints like, “”No one answers the phone, no one returns phone calls,” or “It’s a really hard system to access–you have to persevere and learn over time who to call.” To fix this, Katz is telling her workers they have 48 hours to return any phone call — including hers.
Katz hopes the improved communication will help reverse the loss of foster parents from the system. Three hundred foster parents dropped out in the last quarter alone, according to the court-appointed overseeing the agency. DCF has fallen significantly short of its goal to recruit 850 foster homes, adding just 42 in the last two years.
Advocates charge this lack of retention among foster parents has led to gridlock in the whole system and has caused DCF to be too reliant on large group homes. One in four children in state custody live in a congregate care facility, reports Connecticut Voices for Children.
“We rely on congregate care more than most other states. We have been weak,” Katz said.
And even though Katz is not responsible for how foster parents were treated in the past and the over reliance on congregate care, she has no problem apologizing on behalf of the agency.
“Look, I am sorry. Now let’s fix this,” she said.
Katz is the ninth commissioner to head the agency since it was placed under court supervision 20 years ago. After two decades, it still fully meets the needs of only half the children in its care, according to the court monitor.
Her first steps towards improving DCF include a statewide tour to assess the current system, which brought her to the juvenile boys facility in Middletown last week.
“These are the children who need people to advocate for them the most,” she said of the 116 teens at CJTS. After touring the facility, she stayed to eat dinner with them. “When that door slams behind them they really do feel that. We need to open that door and help them out.”
She is proposing several changes for these offenders, who typically spend five months in the detention center before getting out.
One change is allowing the staff to continue communicating with the boys when they leave–something that’s now against the rules.
“If they make a connection with someone while they are here, the staff should be able to continue to advocate for them if they choose,” Katz said.
The staff seems to agree. One social worker at CTJS said it’s hard for her to say goodbye to the boys when they leave and not being able to stay in touch.
Katz also is troubled by the fact that seven of 10 boys sent to the facility for violating probation were ordered back without ever seeing a judge.”If I want to know how they’re doing when they leave, I can’t just pick up the phone and make sure they’re staying out of trouble,” the social worker said.
“That gives me pause,” she said. She’s looking into whether it makes sense to require a judge’s order to send offenders back to jail to make sure only those who need to be incarcerated are.
Katz said she takes seriously her role as the head cheerleader for the thousands of children statewide in her care.
And that enthusiasm spilled over onto the basketball court at CTJS during her visit, where she watched the group of boys she ate dinner with play.
“Go for the three,” she urged the aspiring judge from the sideline to take the three-point shot.
“Nice shot,” she yelled, waving both hands with excitement.
Katz declined an invitation to join the game–she grew up playing basketball, she said, but the high heels she’s wearing aren’t suitable for the court. She promised to return, but with the hope that the boys will be gone by then, never to return.
Katz said her lengthy inaugural tour, in which she traveled across the state through record snowfalls to introduce herself to those connected with DCF, will be a recurring event. She is counting on two things next tour: for the snow to be gone and for her agency to show recognizable progress.
“I am planning on seeing results sooner rather than later,” she said.