Katz slowly moves DCF toward reform

Soon after accepting the governor's offer to head the Department of Children and Families, Joette Katz paid a visit to our editorial board. The appointment was a shocker. To take one of the most challenging jobs in state government, arguably the most challenging, Ms. Katz had surrendered her prestigious position as a state Supreme Court justice.

In our first meeting a year ago we were impressed with the commissioner's passion for taking on the problems of her troubled agency, including dealing with a standing court order, dating to 1991, that has kept the Connecticut DCF under the supervision of a court monitor due to poor performance in addressing the needs of the children in its care.

As she promised then, Ms. Katz recently returned to provide us an update. To be candid, we met with a more subdued commissioner than the enthusiastic child protagonist who sat down with us a year ago. Perhaps the overwhelming nature of the challenges facing her agency weigh more heavily a year into the job. DCF has custody of about 4,600 children, surrendered by families who could not handle them for various problems or taken from homes because of neglect and abuse. At any given time the agency deals with another 36,000 kids facing various crises, many just steps away from also becoming wards of the state.

Where once the commissioner had expected to quickly put the standing court order behind her, now Ms. Katz said her goal is to see it lifted before the end of Gov. Malloy's four-year term in 2014. The fiscal limitations placed on the agency are inescapable and a challenge to progress, she told us. In trying to address a projected budget shortfall, Gov. Malloy recently announced a $28.4 million cut in DCF funding, raising questions whether this former justice has the necessary pull within the administration to get her agency the support it needs.

Yet there has been progress.

The commissioner is slowly changing the overly cautious nature of the agency. DCF social workers long lived in fear of making the wrong decision that kept a child in a home or with relatives, only to become a victim of abuse, sometimes with fatal consequences. Those cases generate news stories, placing DCF on the front pages and reminding the public of its status as a court-monitored agency.

But in trying to avoid that one mistake, DCF too often did a disservice to the children, placing many in institutional settings, often out of state. That may be the safest option, but often not the best for the kids. The commissioner has made it her priority to keep children with families whenever possible; to provide foster care as the second choice and to turn to congregate care as a last resort.

A year ago DCF had about 370 children in out-of-state institutions, a number Ms. Katz said is down to 222. The overall number of children in institutional care is also trending down, now standing at about 1,260. Meanwhile about 3,100 of the children in DCF's custody are in foster homes, about 1,000 with relatives.

Under her leadership and working with the legislature, impediments that once prevented kids from staying with relatives or in other foster settings are being addressed. DCF now has more leeway on the number of bedrooms in a home where it places children; it can give foster parents access to health and educational information about the kids in their care; and the agency no longer subjects families to unannounced visits, unless there are reasons for heightened concerns. These efforts are gradually generating more foster care options, the commissioner told us.

Since taking over as commissioner, Ms. Katz has also been careful not to overreact with knee-jerk changes in policy when tragedy has befallen children in the agency's care. She is staying the course.

Commissioner Katz took on a difficult job, perhaps even tougher than she bargained for, but she has DCF moving in the right direction, albeit a bit slower than she would have preferred.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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