Senate minority leader calls for firing of DCF commissioner

New London — The Senate minority leader called on the governor Wednesday to fire the Department of Children and Families commissioner, after an investigation found department employees failed to protect a toddler who nearly starved to death in a Groton foster home.

"This is about children and I am pleading with you, on behalf of all the children who don't have a voice in our state. You must remove Commissioner (Joette) Katz, acknowledge that what we've seen from DCF is beyond unacceptable, and pursue immediate change," state Sen. Len Fasano, R-New Haven, wrote in a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

The Office of the Child Advocate found that DCF employees failed to prevent the neglect and abuse of a boy who nearly died of starvation in November 2015. The report found that DCF placed the child, whom they call "Dylan," in a relative's care despite information that the relative had been the subject of multiple prior allegations of abuse and neglect and that her husband had a criminal history, including a prior conviction for assault.

The foster mother, Crystal Magee of Groton, was charged in February with risk of injury to a minor and cruelty to persons. The child, who had been in her care for five months, was so malnourished, he couldn't walk, talk or feed himself, according to the arrest warrant affidavit.

"You haven't paid attention to the fact that children have been harmed and killed while under the care of DCF under your watch, and you haven't done anything to change the direction in which this foundering agency is headed," Fasano wrote in his letter to Malloy.

Kelly Donnelly, director of communications for Malloy, replied by citing a federal court monitor's remarks that DCF has "made and sustained progress," and that plaintiffs in cases brought against the state seeking better care for at-risk youth have said that DCF is "moving in the right direction to reform the system for thousands of children."

"DCF is finally moving towards exiting federal court oversight after 25 years. And while there is no doubt more work to be done to ensure we improve outcomes for all children, this is most assuredly progress — any assertion otherwise is just not correct," Donnelly said in the prepared statement.

Kirsten Fauquet, the mother of "Dylan," said her son recently was injured three more times in his current foster home with a nonrelative in East Hartford. He is being moved a sixth time, she said.

Fauquet's lawyer, Lisa Vincent, said she'd like the boy moved back to his mother but that's unlikely. "DCF has complete authority to move this child wherever they want," she wrote in an email. "Right now they are talking to a former foster parent to take him back."

The boy has developed seizures, his mother said. "It's very heartbreaking for what he's going through and being forced to go through alone. He's been isolated from his siblings. Now from his family," Fauquet said.

She said her children are developing mental problems because of what's happened to them. She worries about permanent damage to her son.

She believes the DCF employees involved should be criminally charged, she said.

Of four DCF workers involved in the case, one supervisor retired and three other people were put on administrative leave. They remain in their jobs.

State Rep. Diana Urban, chair of the state House Committee on Children, said Wednesday she plans to call legislative hearings to discuss the case.

"It's critical that we find out what broke down," said Urban, D-North Stonington.

Urban said she faults the case supervisor.

"What does the word 'supervise' mean?" Urban said. "And those three employees, they were sort of left to their own devices, I guess. But what was wrong with them? Were they afraid? Did they just not care because they'd been there forever? That's what our hearings will be about."

She said the three employees should be fired. "The whole group should be fired," she said. "But it's almost impossible to get that done."

To fire someone, the department needs a paper trail that shows an employee has been a problem over a period of time, she said. Without it, the union will fight, she said.

Urban said she doesn't know how long the employees involved in the case worked for the agency; but she said she's encountered problems at times trying to get information.

"They will just blow you off, these long-term employees, because they feel safe and entrenched. They feel like they don't need to respond," Urban said.  She said Katz has begun filling some vacancies formerly filled by union employees with "at will" workers.

But it's a process, Urban said.

"It's a massive system overhaul that (Katz) has been trying to do, and part of the problem is we have workers in DCF that are what I call institutionalized workers," Urban said. The department has more than 3,000 employees.

DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt declined to discuss the case Wednesday.

Fauquet said she feels like she and the boy's father, John Stratzman, were judged because they're not rich and are a young couple with five children.

Both graduated from Norwich Free Academy, and Fauquet has an associate's degree. She works full-time as a certified nursing assistant in Waterford, caring for people with special needs. Stratzman works third shift as a cook at Foxwoods Resort Casino. The couple receives state health insurance but no other public assistance, Fauquet said.

Vincent said DCF workers made clear several months ago that they intend to terminate the parents' parental rights. Getting the children back will be extremely difficult, she said.

One of the issues in the case, as in many DCF cases, is the way the department identifies potential "mental health conditions" in parents, Vincent said. Often it begins with only a caseworker's observation, she said.

"So if your house is dirty or you're not able to get up in the mornings, maybe you're depressed," Vincent said. From that point, the court can order specific steps for parents to follow, including a mental health evaluation, which may include social skills testing, personality testing, behavioral testing and more, generating reports of 20 pages or longer, she said.

If the parent refuses, they're noncompliant, so that's not really a choice, Vincent said. If the parent agrees, even a small finding could be used against them, she said.

"It is an overused, stigmatizing, harmful term," she said of mental health findings. "But DCF has no tolerance for human emotion. If you're angry, if you're crying, you have a mental health condition. If you have an emotional response, you are referred for mental health evaluation."

In Fauquet's case, she was required to attend counseling, and Vincent said she went through a six-week intensive program, seeing counselors multiple times a week, even though she did not believe she had a mental health problem. Fauquet does not have a car, so she had to take the bus most of the time.

Vincent said she wants her clients to be perfect so that they get their children back.

"Are you depressed and anxious because you're ill, or is it because your child has just been critically injured in the hands of the government?" Vincent said, referring to Fauquet's reaction to what happened to her son "Dylan."

Fauquet said DCF has painted her and Stratzman as having an unstable home, but their children have had no stability in the system.

Fauquet's oldest daughter, now age 5, has been in three homes.

The couple's son, who turns 4 next month, has been in three homes; their daughter, 18 months, four homes; their youngest child, less than 4 months old, has moved twice.

"If you're going to hold a parent up to high standards, then you need to hold your workers even higher," Fauquet said. "And they don't."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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