With little fanfare, the General Assembly in the session that ended this week gave Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz significant authority to turn the troubled agency around. Now they’re looking for results.
“We gave her the tools, let’s see her do the work,” said Speaker of the House Christopher G. Donovan. “It’s been a department we have been concerned about for some time.”
The department has been under federal court supervision for two decades, following a class-action lawsuit filed by child advocates alleging that the state took children from their families too often, failed to care adequately for children in its custody and failed to place them in permanent homes. Eight commissioners before Katz failed to reform the department enough to end court oversight.
Katz is hoping to change that, and with minutes left in the 2011 legislative session Wednesday, she watched anxiously from the floor of the House of Representatives to see if she would get the changes in state law she sought. One by one, she watched a series of DCF bills get unanimous approval.
“I’m very pleased with all the legislation we got through,” Katz said Friday.
Some of her bills include a reorganization of the nearly $900 million agency into six regional sub-agencies, giving foster parents and other concerned parties access to currently confidential education and medical records, and allowing Katz to waive certain housing requirements in order to place children with family members.
She also won another major victory denied previous commissioners when the legislature approved a bill that will end the practice of investigating and removing children from their homes solely because their families are impoverished, and instead refer the case to agencies and programs that provide appropriate services.
Katz said she expects this change alone will result in 10,000 fewer investigations launched by DCF each year–a 40 percent reduction of overall investigations.
“It’s going to keep people from getting into care. It’s a new way of looking at things. It’s much more family friendly,” Katz said. “And it’s going to be significant cost-saving down the road.”
Child advocates strongly support the change.
“It’s long overdue and we are thrilled by this,” said Jeanne Milstein, the state’s child advocate.
Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said the change will give DCF workers more time to investigate more serious cases.
Advocates have long pushed for the agency to stop taking children away because their families are poor. NCCPR reports Connecticut takes indigent children away from their families far above the national average, with DCF taking away 27 children for every thousand impoverished children in the state.
“Workers are going to have the time to do the investigations they need to be doing. They are more likely to find children in real danger. It’s a win-win,” Wexler said. “Although there will be fewer investigations, there will still be help for those that need it.”
Advocates were disappointed that the legislature failed to act on bills addressing some major issues facing the agency, including one requiring Katz bring home children placed in out-of-state institutions and another limiting the use of congregate care. Katz opposed those measures, saying she first needs to fix the problems that have led to DCF so heavily relying out-of-state and congregate facilities. There are currently about 350 children living in out-of-state institutions and almost one-quarter of children in DCF custody live in congregate care facilities, much higher then the national rate according to a report from Connecticut Voices for Children.
“We were hoping for passage of those bills,” Milstein said. “Hopefully we will find out we won’t need that [with Katz] running the agency.”
But legislators say they want to give Katz the flexibility she needs to fix the ailing agency. “I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt in the short term,” Sen. Anthony J. Musto, D-Trumbull and co-chairman of the Human Services Committee, said in March when his committee tabled the congregate care bill.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said this week that passage of the legislative package Katz sought was a demonstration of the legislature’s confidence in her ability to bring DCF’s performance “more in line with our expectations.”
“We are expecting great things and we have no doubt she will deliver,” Musto agreed.
But those expectations have Katz a little nervous.
“Let’s put it this way,” she said. “I have very few excuses.”