After the release of a trio of reports in the last week detailing problems facing the Department of Children and Families, state lawmakers are split on the performance of DCF Commissioner Joette Katz.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano called Thursday for her resignation and asked that Connecticut’s attorney general investigate allegations of excessive use of restraint and seclusion at the state-run juvenile jails.
“We’ve seen a deterioration of the care and condition of children under DCF care,” said Fasano, R-North Haven. “The commissioner’s dismissive attitude and failure to consider recommendations made repeatedly in the past are preventing the agency from properly protecting children.”
Fasano classified Katz’s tenure as one of “autocratic leadership” and “misplaced priorities.
But the c0-chairs of the legislative Committee on Children, which oversees the $815 million agency, said she has more confidence than ever in the embattled commissioner, who has led the agency since January 2011.
“Given the challenges that she faces, she is doing a remarkable job,” said Rep. Diana Urban, D-Stonington. “I have a lot of confidence in the direction that she is taking the department…The youth that are in these facilities are some of the most difficult youth to rehabilitate. And I know there are youth that are sometimes a danger to the workers.”
“Under Joette Katz this agency has made vast improvements. She is taking this agency in the right direction,” said Sen. Danté Bartolomeo, D-Meriden. “We as a state have not been funding her agency enough for her to turn the agency around… We are continuing to handicap the system. Ware tying her hands.”
On Wednesday, Child Advocate Sarah Eagan reported that children at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School for boys and the Pueblo Unit for girls were being “unlawfully” restrained and placed in solitary confinement for excessive periods. State law permits the use of such interventions only in emergencies and not as punishment.
Urban and Bartolomeo said they would like to review surveillance videos shown to the media that, among other things, show a worker at Pueblo running up from behind a youth and throwing her to the ground. The co-chairs are also considering holding a public information forum on the state’s juvenile justice system so lawmakers and the public can better understand the situation.
The office of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Thursday dismissed the Republican call for Katz’s resignation.
“The issues in this report are serious, and the governor and Commissioner Katz are absolutely committed to addressing the issues outlined in these reports to make sure that the children in the care of DCF at these facilities are getting the care and need they deserve,” Malloy’s spokesman, Mark Bergman, said during an interview.
Malloy appointed Katz to the job in 2011, and she left a seat on the state Supreme Court to take it.
“Theres a lot of progress going on. But no one ever said the work was done. We are serious about that work. We wish Len Fasano was as serious about it as he was as grabbing a headline,” said Bergman.
Bergman pointed to the fact that fewer children are being locked up at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School than ever before, and a reduction in abused children being sent out of state, as signs of the progress the department is making.
Senate Democratic leaders were not immediately available to comment on Katz’s performance.
The attorney general’s office said it is reviewing Fasano’s request for an investigation.
“Generally speaking, however, the Office of the Attorney General does not have general authority to investigate or oversee the operations of DCF or any other state agency. Under Connecticut’s whistleblower laws, complaints of mismanagement in state agencies are investigated in the first instance by the state Auditors of Public Accounts,” said Jaclyn M. Falkowski, a spokeswoman for the state’s top attorney.
No whistleblower complaints have been filed with the auditors relating to abuse at the jails, Auditor John Geragosian said.
DCF — which is responsible for 4,000 abused and neglected children and young offenders on any given day — has received a barrage of criticism in recent weeks from advocates and attorneys who represent children in the system.
“The fact that abuse and neglect occurs at the most secure child treatment facilities in the state is a serious problem that cannot be ignored any longer. Unless a major cultural change occurs in relation to what is acceptable behavior by staff at CJTS and Pueblo, these children remain at risk,” Chief Public Defender Susan Storey said Wednesday.
None, however, have gone so far as to publicly call for Katz’s resignation.
There is noticeable tension between the department and advocates, as detailed in the investigation by the Office of the Child Advocate and in a report by Robert Kinscherff, a national juvenile justice expert who released an evaluation recently of Connecticut’s locked facilities.
“Persons interviewed from DCF and from external entities pointed to disagreements about data as evidence that one or the other were ‘misusing,’ ‘misrepresenting,’ ‘spinning,’ or withholding data. [This] disagreement reflects the currently strained and mistrustful relationships among some parties,” Kinscherff reported.
“Although discussions between OCA and DCF over the past year have at times been difficult, marked with disagreements and dispute about the existence, scope or urgency of the issues identified above, ultimately some progress is being made,” Eagan said in her report.
Bartolomeo said that the adversarial relationship between the department and advocates is evident, and impacts her being able to understand is accurate information and not.
“They need to find a way to work together in a much more cooperative way,” the senator said.
The three separate reports evaluating DCF’s performance released in the last week include the investigation conducted by the Office of the Children Advocate, the review by Kinscherff, and a quarterly report by the Federal Court Monitor.
DCF has been under the supervision of the federal court since 1991 as a result of a settlement in a class-action lawsuit.