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Hartford — Joette Katz uses rock and roll anthems to describe her three-year tenure as commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.
Coming into the position, her theme song was "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" by Pat Benatar, she said during a recent interview in her Hudson Street office.
Appointed commissioner of the troubled child welfare agency by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2011, Katz retired from the State Supreme Court, where she had authored many decisions involving the DCF. She set about strengthening families and getting the department out from under two decades of court-ordered federal oversight stemming from a 1989 class-action lawsuit, Juan F. v. Weicker, filed on behalf of abused and neglected children. She directed staff to help families rather than snatch their kids. She brought hundreds of children back to Connecticut from out-of-state placements and drastically reduced the number of kids in group homes and other institutions.
She was hailed as a gutsy and capable commissioner, a person the state was lucky to have.
But with more work ahead, her theme song became "I Won't Back Down" by Tom Petty.
This year, Katz is experiencing some backlash.
Federal Court Monitor Raymond Mancuso wrote in his July 2014 quarterly report that the agency is headed "firmly in the correct direction," but is understaffed and has not put enough money into community programs for children diverted from institutions.
"This has resulted in thousands of children and families in need of behavioral health, substance abuse, educational, medical, domestic violence, permanency and other services, struggling to access the limited appropriate services now available," Mancuso wrote.
Katz's handling of one case in particular, that of a troubled transgender teenager, has brought protesters to the agency's headquarters. Her detractors have called for her resignation on social media sites and the story of "Jane Doe," as the teen is called, has received national attention.
"I had a good honeymoon," the 61-year-old said earlier this month. "I think it's safe to say that this year the honeymoon is over. I don't care about that. I care about staying focused."
Her fighting song of the moment? "I'm Still Standing," by Elton John.
Katz said that should Malloy be re-elected in the fall and want her to stay on in her position, she hopes to get the agency out from under the "Juan F." consent decree during the first half of Malloy's four-year term. She said her relationship with the governor is excellent and that he continues to stay out of her way as she reforms the agency.
The governor, asked about Katz's performance, issued a statement indicating he is "still standing" with her.
"Commissioner Katz has one of the hardest jobs in state government," Malloy said. "Under her leadership, they are making the hard and necessary changes to an agency that plays a critical role in protecting our most precious resource - our children."
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Katz likened her remaining work to "losing that last 10 pounds," where after shedding the big weight, the dieter - or the state child welfare agency - reaches a frustrating plateau.
In his latest report, Mancuso, the federal court monitor, recommended that the agency consider tempering further reductions in congregate care - or institutional placements - until sufficient community-based services are available.
State Children's Advocate Sarah H. Eagan announced in June that she would be investigating the deaths since January of nine children whose families had recent contact with the Department of Children and Families. While cautioning that the investigation was not a condemnation of the DCF's efforts to strengthen families, Eagan said any death of a child involved with state systems should be closely examined.
The number of child deaths in DCF-involved families had also spiked to 10 children in 2013 from six in 2012 and seven in 2011. Many of the deaths involved infants and toddlers sleeping in unsafe environments, and the DCF announced a public awareness campaign to educate parents on how to keep kids safe.
Katz said the deaths are tragic and heartbreaking and that she welcomes the Office of the Child Advocate's review of the DCF and all state systems that serve kids. Katz said the agency is readying another public awareness campaign around the theme of "Who's watching your baby?" based on the number of child abuse and death cases involving a mother's boyfriend or other caretaker.
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Katz's biggest problem this year, at least from a public relations standpoint, involves a troubled transgender 16-year-old who has been in the agency's care for years, both as a neglected/abused child and a juvenile offender. The teen has been referred to as "Jane Doe" to protect her identity.
Katz said that despite all the initiatives underway within the agency, this one case is defining the DCF.
"We have 15,000 open files and I'd like to say that by and large, we do a good job," she said. "I won't say in this case we failed."
What the public hears, though, in local and national news reports, are the claims that a Connecticut child's constitutional rights are being trampled by the child welfare agency.
In April, protesters rallied outside of the DCF's Hartford office and demanded "Justice for Jane," after the teen was taken to the Niantic women's prison even though she was not accused of any adult crimes. Bridgeport Judge Burton A. Kaplan ordered the teen to be taken to the adult prison after witnesses from juvenile facilities testified that her behavior was "more severe than other residents" and became "steadily more aggressive and intense as the respondent increased in size and strength."
One witness estimated the teen was 5'8" tall and weighed about 180.
Over the next three months, "Jane," who was born a boy but identifies as a girl, was transferred twice more. She is currently under investigation for the alleged attack on staff and residents at the Pueblo Unit, the DCF's newly opened, locked psychiatric facility for girls at the Albert J. Solnit Center's south campus in Middletown.
Pueblo was open for just three months when "Jane Doe" was moved there in June. Katz, who had visited the teen at York, said she authorized the transfer not because of the public outcry, but because she thought the teen and the facility were ready.
"I honestly felt we had gotten to a level where she was able to work on her behavior," Katz said. "I felt we could meet her needs and our facility could meet her needs. It didn't work out."
The Connecticut State Police are investigating the July 12 incident at Pueblo, where it was reported the teen assaulted a staff member and another youth and ripped the sprinkler head from a unit, causing flooding and extensive damage.
Eagan, the child advocate, issued a press statement critical of the department's handling of the incident.
"The public shaming of Jane Doe, a victim of significant abuse and neglect, is also inexplicable in light of the fact that the July 12 incident involved four girls, all of whom were restrained, all of whom were described in DCF records as hitting each other and staff," said the press release.
Though the DCF has respected the teen's sexual identity and is providing her with hormone treatments, she was moved to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, a secure facility for delinquent boys, after the incident at Pueblo. The teen was tentatively accepted into a private and secure Massachusetts facility that could accommodate her needs, but the department has not received final approval from Massachusetts officials.
Eventually, the department would like to place her in a therapeutic foster home.
Katz said she is still the teen's "parent" and will continue to act in her best interest, but that she also has to keep staff and her "other girls" safe. Katz said she doesn't want the case to distract the DCF workers from their mission and she worries that the attention could be harmful to the girl.
"I don't think celebrity status is doing her any good," Katz said. "I worry, because I think not everybody has the best of intentions."
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Katz is unapologetically focusing on her numbers. There were 4,111 children in DCF care (both abused/neglected and delinquent) as of July 1, 2014, which is 14 percent fewer than on Jan. 1, 2011, according to an agency spokesman.
The agency has an $813 million budget for the current state fiscal year and is in the process of hiring 80 new front-line workers. With more difficult cases staying in the community, workers are "stretched to the max," Katz said, but "the staffing tide is turning." She hopes to add another 50 workers in the fall.
The number of children in out-of-state placements has been reduced from 370 in 2011 to 22. Katz said it has been a challenge finding appropriate placements in state for some children, including sexual offenders, but that some providers have "stepped up."
State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, co-chair of the General Assembly's Committee on Children, has worked closely with Katz to "get from talk to action" by using a data-based tool called Results-Based Accountability to track how children are doing and achieve the best outcomes.
Katz, Urban said, is "committed to a path that looks at what actually makes children better off."
"Instead of doing the same old same old, she is immersed in research, has a legal background and has seen these kids in court," Urban said.
Katz has been pushing hard, Urban said, so the "pushback" is not surprising.
"What has happened is, people don't like change, or they like their own change but they don't like somebody else's change," Urban said.