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Hartford - Joette Katz is watching out for her kids, all 4,000 of them, from the 10th floor corner office of a state office building on Hudson Street.
Since stepping down from the Connecticut Supreme Court two years ago to become commissioner of the state's perennially troubled Department of Children and Families, Katz has changed the way business is done at the agency.
She is steering the DCF away from institutional and out-of-state placements for abused and neglected kids and focusing on helping troubled families rather than "snatching and grabbing" their children.
At 60, Katz has no intention of retiring - "I'll sleep when I'm dead," she said during an interview in late June.
When she was a member of Connecticut's highest court, her opinions shaped state laws pertaining to equality in education, the death penalty, eminent domain and gay marriage, just to name a few.
After 18 years on the court, she stepped down when newly elected Gov. Dannel P. Malloy asked her to head up the DCF. She said she needed a challenge and admits it has been "heavy lifting."
The department employs 3,200 people, including 1,000 social workers, and its annual budget for the current fiscal year is $793.4 million. The agency had custody of 4,022 abused and neglected kids as of June, but also had oversight of another 36,000 children and 16,000 families that need services.
Katz said she is striving to bring about reforms that won't be reversed by a future administration, reforms, she said, that are not new to most of the country.
"Shame on us," she said.
Katz is married to research scientist Philip Rubin and has two grown children of her own, but often refers to the kids in state care as "my kids." She said she wants them to wake up in the morning and have breakfast with the same person who tucked them in the night before.
"I say to legislators, how do you want to raise your kids?" she said.
Since 1989, the DCF has been operating under a consent decree resulting from a lawsuit, Juan F. v. O'Neill, which charged that the agency, then known as the Department of Children and Youth Services, was failing to provide the necessary services to abused and neglected children.
The agency, which has an exit plan from the decree, satisfied 15 of 22 requirements during the quarter that ended Dec. 31, 2012, according to a court monitor's report that also said "an excellent working relationship between Commissioner Katz and the Juan F. plaintiffs has emerged."
Asked if she felt she had to "teach to the test" to satisfy the consent decree, Katz said, "If you do your work right, Juan F. will take care of itself."
Katz said Malloy has been great to work for, telling her, "I'll get out of your way. Keep me in the loop." She said she also meets regularly with legislators.
Katz's annual salary during the past fiscal year was $153,831. She also receives a judicial pension of more than $100,000 a year.
By the numbers
Since she took over in January 2011, the number of children living in group homes, institutions or other so-called "congregate" settings has decreased by 23 percent. Katz said she would like to see that number drop much further. Only 47 children are placed at out-of-state institutions, compared to 362 in 2011.
Sixteen percent fewer kids are being cared for by the agency overall, and 40 percent more, compared with two years ago, are living with relatives. Providers work with the relatives to make sure they can adequately care for the displaced kids.
"It's not just about serving kids," Katz said. "It's about serving families, because kids come from families."
Priscilla F. Hammond, a children's attorney from Lyme whose caseload includes 100 children in DCF custody, said she was skeptical about the "considered removal meetings" that take place between parents, social workers, lawyers and others when the department is considering removing a child from a home.
"I have now attended several and I have changed my mind," Hammond said. "I was pleasantly surprised at several of them where there was a very good outcome for the child or children."
The meetings resulted in a quicker resolution for kids, who were often placed with an adult they knew and avoided the trauma of being taken into a stranger's home, Hammond said.
Katz, who started her state career as a public defender, said she sometimes represented adults who had grown up as "DCF kids." Serial killer Michael Ross was on her case list, as was Jerry Daniels, who raped and murdered Christine Whipple and killed her 3-year-old child in Norwich in 1984. But Katz said another client, who had been raised at Long Lane, the state's former juvenile detention facility in Middletown, was "even more dangerous."
Children in limbo
Earlier this year, Katz took Superior Court judge Curtissa Cofield to task - and to court - for excessively delaying decisions on the cases of 10 children whose parents had their rights terminated. The delays kept the kids from being adopted or placed in more permanent settings.
"When I found out, I said, 'I want to hold the judge's feet to the fire,' '' Katz said. "It was a little daunting for some of the lawyers who represent the agency, because we don't usually do that. But I said, I'm not going to be complicit. I don't ever want to meet these children and have to say I'm sorry."
Katz said she couldn't just pick up the phone and tell Cofield, whom she has known for 30 years, to act on the cases, because that would be considered an ex-parte communication. The state Appellate Court ordered Cofield to issue the judgments, and she eventually complied.
In June, the state Judicial Review Council suspended Cofield without pay for 30 days for delaying the child welfare decisions.
"I never wanted her grieved," Katz said. "I just wanted the decisions. This was tragic, as far as I was concerned."
State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, co-chair of the legislature's Children's Committee and a champion of a fiscal policy called results-based accountability, said DCF was incapable, in the past, of providing the data needed to assess the agency's performance. Under Katz, the DCF has become a model for results-based accountability, Urban said.
"When Joette came in, knowing her background, I made a beeline for her office," Urban said. "She was pedal to the metal, let's do it. We were talking the same language, and there was an immediate level of comfortability."
Katz recruited her friend, Stamford attorney Ernest F. Teitell, to help her put together the Child Justice Foundation Initiative, in which private attorneys volunteer to ensure children in DCF care are getting the educational services to which they are entitled. Forty prominent attorneys from around the state have volunteered and have disposed 50 cases.
"She saw this need and came up with this idea that she wanted the private bar to step up and do a pro bono project to represent these kids," Teitell said in a phone interview.
Teitell said he wasn't surprised when Katz, who had always been active in children's programs, decided to take on the DCF.
"She wrote a lot of opinions and everybody recognized her as a real force on the court," he said. "She wanted to write another chapter and do some real good. That's what she's about.
Katz's former colleague on the Supreme Court, Justice David Borden, said that for her to leave the court, where she was comfortable, was "a gutsy, character-driven thing to do."
"She grew up in Brooklyn and she has that kind of New York quality," Borden said. "She's kind of in your face at times. She doesn't mince her words and she doesn't dance around it. She does it in very simple or direct language."
When 3-year-old Athena Angeles of Willimantic, whose family had been involved with DCF, died just hours after she had been treated for a cut in the emergency room at Windham Hospital, Katz was publicly critical of the hospital. But she also reached out to the medical community to create more rigorous screening for abuse by doctors.
Katz also spoke up when a DCF-involved child from Milford died, stating publicly that the agency had done its best with the information available to it at the time.
"If you do everything you're supposed to do, and something bad happens, we're not going to throw you under the bus," she said.
Pushback and criticism
Katz has encountered what Urban, the legislator, calls "pushback" from providers whose programs were closed and from union leaders who felt that the reforms were threatening their jobs. Both unions that represent DCF workers were contacted for comment for this story, and neither responded.
"I think anybody who has this kind of vision and this kind of tenacity is going to be subject to criticism," Urban said.
Katz was the subject this spring of a scathing newspaper column because she parked her BMW convertible in a state lot over the winter. Katz apologized, moved the car, and moved on.
Some in the legal and social services communities remain skeptical about the closure of group homes and Katz's insistence that hard-to-place children, including sex offenders and fire starters, should be kept in state.
The High Street Group Home in Mystic, which had housed troubled teenage girls for decades, closed in April after DCF cut the budget of its operator, the Noank Group Home and Support Services, by $1 million.
Attorney Kelly Reardon, president of the Noank Group Home's board of directors, said she understands the trend away from group homes, but that congregate care facilities provide a better setting for some children who need daily support from therapists and peers.
"We have had girls who said that it was only when they went into a group home that they felt like they had a true family," Reardon said.
Katz said the agency has monitored the children who were removed from congregate care settings and those who were brought back from out of state.
"None are worse off, and most are better," she said.