Middletown — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is the fifth governor to hold office since the start of litigation 27 years ago that has placed the Department of Children and Families under the supervision of a court-appointed monitor. But Joette Katz is his first and only DCF commissioner.
One measure of the governor’s faith in Katz, who resigned as a Connecticut Supreme Court justice to become one of Malloy’s earliest appointees, is the timing of a news conference Tuesday celebrating a “kinship homes” program that has reached an all-time high in placing children with relatives and friends, an approach they say reduces trauma to children.
It came five days after two DCF employees were suspended over allegations of abuse and neglect involving an 18-month-old boy placed in the care of an aunt.
“He has stood by me through five, almost six years now,” Katz said. “I’ll tell you, that’s a national record. The average life expectancy of a DCF commissioner is 18 months.”
Malloy says the agency has the toughest job in state government, constantly weighing whether to take custody of a child from a parent, then finding care in a foster home, congregate care or with a family member.
“That’s the reality. It’s the front lines,” Malloy said. “To put it in perspective, we’re watching out over, supervising, playing a role in the lives of about 36,000 children in our state.”
Over the past two months, 42 percent of the children under DCF supervision have been placed with relatives, friends and others with a broadly defined “kinship” relationship, double the percentage when Malloy and Katz took office. The commissioner said the use of kinship homes probably is at or close to the maximum the department can expect.
“In Connecticut, largely because we had come to view families as being the source of the problem when it came to abused or neglected kids, only 21 percent of youth in care were living with a family member,” Malloy said. “We know that the trauma children experience from being removed from home is significantly diminished if the child lives with someone they know and love.”
For first time, the number of children in kinship homes exceeded those living in traditional foster homes, Malloy said.
“It did require changing the culture,” Katz said. “Historically, we didn’t turn to families — for a whole variety of reasons. We tended not to engage them, and we assumed if we had to remove children from families, that somehow we couldn’t enlist families, rely on them, engage them to help us transition this work. And nothing could be farther than the truth.”
Since March 2012, the department has convened “considered-removal meetings” when a child is subject to removal from the home. The meetings are an opportunity to search for a friend or family member who can care for a child when the parents are unable.
“Our job, it’s not always straightforward; it’s not always simple,” said Allon Kalisher, a regional DCF administrator. “It’s great when it is. It’s great when it’s very clear we have a willing and capable family member. And sometimes it takes the good hard work of our staff to do those kinds of assessments.”
Katz introduced Kathy Coale as a family member who stepped forward in 2015 after her brother died, leaving two teenaged sons without a guardian. She attended the press conference with the youngest nephew, Avery, who said his home had been chaotic before his parents’ divorce and father’s death.
“I just wanted to be out of the house, away from my mom, whatever. There was a lot going on that wasn’t good. I was not doing well. I had terrible grades. I was doing a lot of messed-up things and getting in trouble and doing all that fun stuff that not-so-good kids do,” Avery said.
Avery said his only hope of avoiding foster care seemed to rest on the ability of his brother, who still was a high school student, to convince DCF he could care for both of them. Instead, his aunt and uncle became their guardians, despite what had been a distant relationship.
“I didn’t know them. They didn’t really know me. Once a year on Christmas Eve, and there were a lot of people there, so it wasn’t like it was one on one,” Coale said.
Avery said he now is getting good grades in high school while being a year-round athlete on the football and indoor and outdoor track teams. His brother has graduated and is attending college.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said the department still has significant shortcomings, despite the success celebrated Tuesday.
“While I applaud steps to improve the Department of Children and Families, I can’t help but feel that today’s press conference was an attempt to distract from the very real problems that have arisen in multiple cases of children being placed with family members and not receiving the care DCF should have been providing,” Fasano said.
Fasano has previously called for Katz’s resignation over issues in a juvenile jail operated by DCF, including the use of restraints. On Tuesday, Fasano said he questions whether the department adequately monitors children in foster care, whether its provided by a relative or others.
“As a result children have been placed with pedophiles and sex offenders and have suffered from abuse at the hands of their family members, all under the watch of DCF,” Fasano said, referring to a Hartford Courant story in May. “While the numbers released today seem to be a positive thing, we need to correct the mistakes within the kinship placement system that have led to children being placed in dangerous settings. There’s still more work that must be done to ensure that children are placed in safe homes. Child safety must always come before family preservation.”
When Katz took office in January 2011, a national advocacy group reported that Connecticut ranked well above the national average in removing children from their homes, and it ranked near the bottom in terms of placing those children with other relatives.
Katz has urged her staff to take reasonable risks in keeping families together.
She was optimistic on taking office in January 2011, estimating it would take a year to escape decades of oversight ordered by a federal judge. Instead, she has gotten credit for progress without ending the regular assessments of a monitor.
In August, the court monitor, Raymond Mancuso, reported his “best findings ever:” The department met 16 of 22 court-ordered goals.
The oversight continues.