Seeking a thankless, no-win job? Apply with the next governor

In selecting his nominee to become the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, the next governor will need to find someone who really likes a big challenge and has extremely thick skin.

It may be the most thankless, no-win job in state government.

Joette Katz has been in that position for the last eight years and will almost certainly be replaced, even if another Democrat succeeds Dannel P. Malloy.

Katz was among Malloy’s first appointees after he won in 2010. It was an unusual choice. Katz was serving on the Connecticut Supreme Court when Malloy tapped her for the job. In accepting it, Katz went from writing legal opinions to heading the agency charged with the care of thousands of children in the “system,” most because their parents had been judged unfit.

The former Supreme appeared supremely confident that she would be the person who could finally get the agency out from under two decades of court-ordered federal oversight. Since the early 1990s Connecticut has had a court-appointed monitor assessing DCF’s performance, demanding it provide data, and measuring it against a set of improvement goals set by the court.

The situation stems from a 1989 class-action lawsuit, Juan F. vs. Gov. Lowell P. Weicker, filed on behalf of neglected children.

Katz will finish her tenure without achieving her objective. Juan F. remains in place. In 2017, DCF came oh so close. A court settlement acknowledged the state’s progress and was ready to end the federal supervision. But there was a catch. To avoid backsliding, the General Assembly had to agree to shield the department’s roughly $800 million budget from further cuts for several years.

The House and Senate soundly rejected the settlement, Republicans unanimous in their opposition to locking in DCF funding.

Katz’s biggest success has been in ending the placement of children in out-of-state institutions and increasing the number of kids who, after being removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, end up with family members rather than in institutional or foster care.

But when a department is managing 15,000 files, and has about 4,000 children placed in care at any one time, things can go wrong, very wrong. In one notorious case in Groton in 2015, a toddler was placed with a family member with a history of neglect and another with a criminal record. For months, a caseworker did not record a time when the child was awake during her visits. The toddler ended up in the hospital close to death from abuse, including near starvation.

In another 2015 case, Katz took faced criticism when a troubled transgender teen, born a boy but who identified as a girl, ended up in the Niantic prison for women because of behavioral problems.

DCF monitoring proved woefully inadequate in the February 2017 death of a 17-year-old autistic young man. Unable to gain access to the teen, DCF closed a neglect complaint involving the mother. A month later he was dead. The boy was down to 84 pounds and had been physically abused. Convicted a year ago, the mother is serving an 11-year sentence for manslaughter.

Last month a 16-year-old pregnant teen committed suicide at DCF’s Alfred J. Solnit Center. The center had a prior review critical of its handling of suicide threats.

How much is the commissioner responsible for such tragedies? Probably not a lot, but the buck stops there. It’s the nature of the job dealing with dysfunctional families and emotionally damaged kids. Your staff may get a thousand cases right, but it’s the ones they screw up that put the commissioner in the public’s eye.

That’s what the next DCF commissioner can expect. Any takers?

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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