Katz Brings Real Reform To DCF, Observers And Lawmakers Say
Reforms have begun to take hold at the state's $820 million child-protection agency, a department that lurched from crisis to crisis with child-removal, institutionalization, and public spending rates that far exceeded the national average year after year.
Eighteen months into the tenure of Commissioner Joette Katz, child advocates, lawmakers and outside observers say they see significant and encouraging signs of improvement at the Department of Children and Families.
DCF is no longer using the adversarial, forensic approach to the less serious reports and is,
instead, working with the families. Joette Katz, commissioner, and her staff are responsible
for the new approach. (John Woike, Hartford Courant / July 6, 2012)
"In many areas, she's addressed problems the prior administration ignored,'' said attorney Ira Lustbader, who has squared off against DCF for more than a decade as lead counsel in a landmark child-neglect lawsuit. The department remains under a federal court order to improve a series of fundamental services.
There are fewer kids in large residential centers, fewer kids in out-of-state placements, fewer child removals with no immediate effect on child safety, fewer kids returning to DCF custody after having been reunited with family, and more kids living with relatives or significant family friends as foster parents, DCF records show.
In cases of relatively minor child neglect, DCF is now working with the parents to strengthen the household and stop the situation from getting worse. Unless there is a pressing safety issue with a child, DCF social workers in these cases are calling the families and telling them they are coming. Until recently, it was DCF's longstanding practice to treat the minor cases the same way as reports of physical or sexual abuse — by starting a police-style forensic investigation, opening an abuse/neglect file on the family, and showing up unannounced.
Fifteen hundred DCF social workers have now been trained in this "differential response.'' Child advocates say the less adversarial approach will reduce the number of needless child removals and help preserve families that deserve to stay together.
Katz, a former state Supreme Court justice appointed to DCF by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in January 2011, says the new approach also allows DCF's investigative teams to concentrate more on the most troubling cases, which make up only a fraction of the 45,000 calls the agency receives through its hotline every year.
The heavier focus on the less serious cases at the front door of the child-protection system has begun to save money, said state Rep. Diana Urban, co-chair of the select committee on children. The department paid for a new law that allows separated siblings in foster care to visit each other regularly with money it had on hand. Urban said that was unusual for an agency whose budget once approached $950 million.
Jamey Bell, executive director of Connecticut Voices for Children, said Katz is selling to her staff a far more nuanced approach to the less serious cases and encouraging them to take educated risks.
"She's telling the workers that she knows that every decision they make — remove the child, leave the child — entails risks. She's asking the workers to consider the whole broad array of resources available to a family, including the extended family. And she recognizes that simply removing a child is, in itself, a trauma, sometimes a needed trauma, but still a trauma. And that is a sea change for this department,'' said Bell.
Katz acknowledged that not all the caseworkers believe that she, or any politically appointed commissioner, really has their backs. But most of the workers are buying what she is saying and doing, Katz said.
Some workers were concerned, justifiably so, that the non-forensic approach to the less serious cases would jeopardize child safety, Katz said. That hasn't been the case, said Katz, citing a drop in the number of children returning to DCF custody after a failed family reunification in the first quarter of this year compared with the same periods in 2010 and 2011.
"I think there's support to make the decisions we feel are right,'' said DCF social worker Susana Adams, a 13-year department member assigned to the termination-of-parental-rights unit in the Meriden regional office. Her unit's role speaks for itself, but she felt comfortable enough earlier this year to do something that is almost never done — put a case that has come to her unit back on a path to a mother-child reunion.
The mother had left her 4-month-old baby with the baby's father and one of the father's friends. Both men were drug abusers and the father was also mentally ill, records show. The mother went with her mother and friends to play bingo across the street. While she was out, the baby was shaken and seriously injured. Police investigated but couldn't prove which man was responsible, since both denied that any abuse occurred and said the injury was accidental. Police also considered charging the mother with risk of injury to a minor, but ultimately did not.
The mother completed 12 weeks of parenting therapy, scored well on several court-ordered psychological assessments, got a job in housekeeping at a hotel, got her GED, and was observed as nurturing and loving during twice-weekly visits with the baby and her other daughter, who was 6 years old, over a 14-month period. The baby recovered well from her injuries.
Adams struggled with the case because the injuries had been extensive. One supervisor remarked along the way that "shaken babies don't go home.''
But Adams said in an interview that she strongly felt "this case didn't meet the grounds for terminating parental rights. Mom was really complying and she was ready. I went to my team and we discussed it.''
The children came home. It was only the third time in 13 years that Adams pushed a case off the termination-of-parental-rights track.
"I've seen certain trends under this commissioner,'' Adams said. "There's been a huge push for reunification, for keeping families together.''
Katz said that "historically, this department has looked for reasons to terminate; termination became the focus. We are flipping that.''
Staying The Course
The challenge for the department now, say people who follow what is perhaps the most scrutinized of any state agency, is to hold firm on the preventative measures and the family-preservation efforts even when a child dies from abuse.
Traditionally, the agency adopted a "take the child and run'' posture in the wake of the death of a child known to the agency, becoming noticeably more conservative and forensic-minded. It happened after 9-month old Emily Hernandez was raped and killed by her mother's live-in boyfriend in 1995. It happened in 2000 after 3-year-old Alex Boucher was murdered soon after DCF place him with a foster couple in Florida. It happened after high-profile child deaths in 2003 and 2005 and 2009.
Advocates have long said that the spike in child removals — some have even called it a "panic'' — that often followed child death cases in Connecticut did not make children safer overall.
"Each death is so laden with emotion — you want to be sick,'' said state Sen. Len Suzio of Meriden, the ranking Republican on the legislature's select committee on children.
"Still, there needs to be a measured response, not a knee-jerk reaction,'' said Suzio. "From Joette Katz we are getting judicial temperament along with an intense commitment to her mission. Remember, this was an agency that couldn't clean up its act. Now, we're seeing improvement on a steady trajectory. It's still early, but she is staying the course.'
Each death, including the three that have occurred on Katz's watch, shakes DCF to its core. But the fatalities, though they grab headlines, are relatively uncommon.
From Jan. 1, 2001, to Jan. 1, 2011, 36 children died of abusive trauma, according to the state's Child Fatality Review Board.
There have been three such deaths since then, occurring on March 22, 2011, in Hartford; June 10, 2011, in Ansonia; and Nov. 23 in Willimantic.
Of her plans for reform and her public actions in overhauling DCF, it is here that Katz digs her heels in the deepest. She said she will not abandon change in the face of a tragedy.
"We can't be in a reactive, crisis mode all the time,'' Katz said in a recent interview in her 10th floor office at DCF headquarters on Hudson Street in Hartford.
"We are not going to go around just putting out fires. We are not going to stop taking educated risks and exercising our professional judgment. Like police, like fire, tragedies will happen, even if you do everything right.''
Where past DCF administrations "pulled back and became ultraconservative, Katz "is empowering her workers to make decisions about individual cases,'' said Urban, a Democrat of North Stonington. "When she's here, in front of us, she's backing up her workers. She is not shrinking from the reforms.''
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va., said Katz's commitment to steady reform makes her "the gutsiest leader in American child welfare today."
"The typical response is to run away from reform, but Justice Katz understands that child removal doesn't always equate to child safety,'' said Wexler, who has followed DCF since the mid-1990s. In 2009, Wexler wrote a scathing report in which he laid out how DCF's crisis-driven strategy led to removing children, putting children in institutions, and spending public money at rates well above the national average.
Under Katz, the number of children in residential centers, called "congregate care,'' is down 14 percent; out of-state placements are down 57 percent, while the number of children living with relatives in foster care, considered the best alternative to the biological family, is up 30 percent, according to DCF records.
"You want to see that continue, but these are very encouraging signs. They had a lot of ground to make up,'' Wexler said.
Of course, there will always be immense pressure to make sure delicate cases don't go wrong. Most recently questions were raised over the actions of DCF and Windham Hospital in the days and weeks leading up to the homicide on Nov. 23 of 3-year-old Athena Angeles, allegedly at the hands of her mother's boyfriend.
Both the boyfriend and the mother have been charged with manslaughter. When a DCF caseworker was first called in five weeks before Athena's death, the child had two black eyes and a badly swollen face. The mother said she was hit with a toy by her sister and fell.
A day before her death, Athena arrived at Windham Hospital with a head injury. Doctors stapled the head wound and sent the child home without a thorough examination of her whole body or checking the complete medical history.
A doctor at a Willimantic clinic had called in DCF five weeks earlier, after caseworkers with the early-childhood education program had visited a bruised and injured Athena at home. The caseworkers in the preschool program had noted injuries on Athena on at least two other occasions. There were also two home visits in November in which the child appeared OK.
Last month, Katz proposed new guidelines calling for a complete physical examination of a child's entire body and a review of the medical file when injured children come to a hospital. Here is the statement Katz gave The Courant on June 22 after she was asked about the agency's role in the Athena Angeles case:
"This was a terrible tragedy that did not have to happen. The best way for us to honor the life of this little girl is to work together — all of us — to improve our responses in the future. The medical, private provider and child protection systems are interdependent, and all are working together in the best interest of children. We are committed to improve that cooperative work so that we can better serve children and families going forward.
"We are not interested in pointing fingers. We are focused on working together with our partners in the medical and private service provider communities to make improvements to how we collectively respond to children in situations such as these."
Room For Improvement
Lustbader, associate director of Children's Rights in New York City, and lead counsel in the "Juan F.'' child-neglect lawsuit, said DCF still has to improve behavioral-health services, in-home visitations, and programs for older youth if the department is to end the federal court oversight.
The Juan F. class-action case was settled in 1991, and the department is in its 21st year of monitoring by the court. The quarterly reports issued by the court monitor during Katz's watch have noted substantial progress, but also lingering "service gaps (that) significantly impact the ability to provide timely and appropriate services to children and families.'' The reports have also cited a need for DCF to increase the overall number of foster families.
"The previous administration spent more time trying to get out from under the consent decree than fixing the problems,'' said Lustbader. "Commissioner Katz is a strong leader who deserves major credit for owning the problems at DCF and setting a path toward finally exiting" from court oversight.