Joette Katz, 59, is the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families [DCF], a position she assumed after serving nearly two decades as a justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court. She resides in Fairfield.
Did you have to buy a new wardrobe now that you don’t have judicial robes as cover?
[laughs] Well, no. Except quite frankly, the problem is that my eating habits are so horrendous in this job that although my wardrobe was perfectly appropriate, I can no longer fit into it. [laughs] So, I have other challenges.
Why did you leave the Connecticut Supreme Court for DCF?
In truth, I loved what I was doing. I mean, I really did, and I certainly could’ve stayed there until I was 70, when one is “constitutionally senile,” as we call it, but this opportunity presented itself and I was ready for a challenge. I loved doing what I was doing, but there’s a window in life, or in time, and I was going to be 58, and I thought, “You know, if I don’t make a change now, then essentially, I won’t have an opportunity down the road to make a change, and I was really ready for a challenge—and I got one!
What was the most challenging aspect of the transition?
Commissioner Joette Katz
Frankly, learning about all the services that DCF provides. Learning about the scope—I mean, I certainly was not unfamiliar with DCF. Obviously, I had written many opinions on the Supreme Court dealing with the statutory scheme and the agency. I had sat juvenile as a trial judge, and most importantly I can tell you, when I was a public defender in a past life, many of the people I represented were, for lack of a better term, “failures” of the system twenty, thirty years ago. So, in some ways it was coming home. But that’s not really a direct answer to your question . . . .
I think the biggest challenge was learning that we were the biggest mental health provider and we’ve got 36,000 kids who we serve, there are 4,700 in care, three institutions—actually, four if you count The Wilderness School—3,400 employees, multiple unions, and it was just really getting a handle on everything in a very short period of time.
What was the most surprising/unexpected aspect of going to DCF?
This sounds terrible, but as a former justice, you’re used to saying something and having people actually listen. [laughs] And it’s not that people don’t listen, things are just a little more . . . complex. Again, just for all the reasons and things I just identified. So in answer to your question, it’s just really understanding that there’s a process, and I’m not of a process person. Any big bureaucracy is heavily laden with process, and there is value to process, obviously, but I would sit at meetings . . . and everything gets committeed and piloted and that’s just not my nature. I want to study things and feel like we’re making intelligent decisions and not just shooting from the hip, but there’s a point where you just need to pull the trigger. In this agency, as well as in big government in general, I think people are a little uncomfortable with that. And certainly this agency, I think, was very uncomfortable with that. We rolled out DRS—our Differential Response System—in March of this past year, and it’s a whole new way of working with families. We found some emails that were dated ten years ago, almost to the day, about pilot projects [that had not been resolved yet]—so I found myself very quickly saying to people in all the committees and meetings attending, “Okay, enough mental masturbation. It’s time to move.” So people have had to get used to my tempo and I had to get used to theirs, and it’s a dance. I think that was certainly challenging, to understand how everything was laden with process.
Is DCF too big?
Well, it is by necessity. The good news is that we’ve made so many changes that a lot of the numbers are coming down dramatically, and that’s a good thing. That means we’re really focusing on so many different things at the same time, and so many of our contracts with our providers, making sure what we’re getting for our money, if anyone is making a better offer at the end of the day, and putting an RBA [results-based accountability] framework around everything. I’m not going to say it’s “too big,” but it is certainly big and complex.
Does it needs to be so complex?
That’s a great question. I don’t know if it has to be so complex—we’re certainly looking to streamline things, but you also want to give voice to communities and different cultures, so one of the first things I did when I came aboard was to restructure the agency and create what I call “mini DCFs.” There certainly have to be systems that are uniform across the board, but I also think there has to be room for our individual offices to be able to exercise discretion and have some level of autonomy in working with their local providers and their families and their communities, because that’s where I really want to see these kids at the end of the day—I want to see them, if they can’t be in their homes, then in relatives’ homes, in foster homes and in their communities, and better served by those communities. So it does have to be a little more complex. I don’t think one size fits all, so there has to be a certain level of complexity. Also, given the number of diagnoses that we see on any given day—we are the largest mental health-care agency for kids—one size doesn’t fit all. We’re learning. When we’re talking about kids on the spectrum, etc.—there is a spectrum, and I think that word really speaks volumes because it talks about the array of issues that kids have as well as the array of services that we need to be able to provide to make sure the kids get what they need.
How would you assess the progress DCF has made since you’ve become commissioner?
I’m very happy. I’m very happy with the progress we’ve made. I have a great deal of respect for the line staff who’ve really made that happen. Having said that, it’s never enough. It’s my nature—I’m sorry. [laughs] Someone says to me, “When do you want that?” and I say, “Yesterday.” And really, it’s because we’ve seen too many kids age out of the system. If it takes two months to do something in my life, it’s no big deal, but two months in the life of a child, particularly a young child, might as well be a lifetime. So I’m always very impatient and, this sounds terrible, but I don’t strive for perfection. And I’ll explain that. I remember years ago when I was in my first year on the court, I had a colleague say to me—he was talking about himself—“Boy, it takes me forever to get these opinions out, but I feel like when I’m done, it’s the best that I could possibly do. Don’t you feel that way?” And I looked at him and said, “I can’t imagine what that feels like.” First of all, it’d be paralyzing, because you’d never achieve it again. But also if you weighed it—and I think that’s part of why things churned so long on so many things I’ve looked at—because people are afraid to do things unless they can be assured of perfection. Well, you know what? Life isn’t perfect, and if you wait for perfection, you don’t get anything done. But that’s just me. I can’t speak for anyone else. Particularly, when you have so many people dependent on you, it’s a luxury I just can’t afford.
If you could wave a wand and fix one thing in the child welfare system, what would it be?
I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve learned about the development of the brain, and what goes on in little kids’ brains as a result of stress. And stress can be what goes on with mom in utero, it can be stress in terms of what’s going on in the family, and how little children internalize this—and not just emotionally, but actually in terms of their brain development. So if I could wave a wand—and this is a tall order—I would like to eliminate all the stress in little kids’ lives, which means I’d like to eliminate all the stress in their parents’ lives, which of course, is unrealistic. But certainly, help ameliorate some of the situations that create that stress or are exacerbated by it. Poverty, housing, mental health, drug addiction—I mean, I could go on and on and on—helping young parents learn to become parents . . . . It’s a very tall order, and I don’t expect to achieve it—it’s not realistic to say I want to remove all the stress from everyone’s life who is raising little children. I mean, I’d like to remove the stress from my life because it seems like all I do is create situations that exacerbates it. But in a nutshell, I say this because I really think it does touch everything. So as long as you’re giving me a magic wand, that’s how I’d use it.
Of course, I’m showing my age because when I think of a magic wand, I grew up watching Andy Devine and Froggy. There was a character, Froggy, and he was really evil. Andy Devine would say, “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!” and would Froggy would make people disappear and torment other players on the show. So when people talk to me about magic wands, that’s the vision I get. [laughs] You should Google Froggy, and you’ll probably understand why it’s probably not the greatest image for the Commissioner of DCF to be thinking about.
If there was just one thing you could tell everyone about DCF, what would it be?
That we really are here to help people. I know that sounds Pollyannaish, but I think one of the things we’ve done successfully in particular, is that we’re working very hard—and accomplishing it, in large measures—to change the image of DCF. We’ve done a number of things. For example, everything now, we go to announced visits unless there’s a real legitimate safety risk involved. We call people, we make appointment, and we don’t just show up at their homes. When cases get reported to us—we get 95,000 calls a year, and since we’ve started this Differential Response System, 40 percent of our cases go to community providers. They don’t come into our care. The events don’t create cases on our books, and we’ve done such a good job in partnering with families and trying to meet them where they live as opposed to what we think they need. We’re so listening to them, giving them voice, that I’m happy to say that in only 4 percent of our cases, families have chosen not to go to those community providers to get whatever it is they’re looking for. That’s really stupendous, I have to tell you. That’s really where our staff deserves so much credit, because we’re just reaching out to them and really better engaging with them and looking at our families at a source of strength and not a source of weakness. That’s helped us achieve the gains that we’ve been able to accomplish.
What was the best advice you got when joining DCF?
I met with some advocates and got some names of people both in and out of the agency to listen to, and to just talk to about where we were, what kinds of things were going on inside the agency—I had done my own research in terms of nationally, programs that I wanted to put in place, direction I wanted to take—but that was some of the best advice. Just meeting with people. I used to call it in my old life “figuring out the legal landscape.” This was figuring out the social policy landscape.
Speaking of your former life, have you ever felt a kinship to the TV show “Judging Amy”?
[laughs] Amy Brenneman’s mother Frederica Brenneman is an old friend and a juvenile judge, and I had some other friends who were juvenile judges who used to work on the screenplays and give them ideas because many of the stories were based in reality. But no . . . that’s not my thing. [laughs] Great show, wonderful casting but not my thing.
What do you miss most about serving on the Connecticut State Supreme Court?
Well, I admit that sometimes I watch cases being argued on CTN. I read the briefs that are filed on the agency’s behalf by the Attorney General’s office, we talk about the legal issues . . . and that’s what I miss. I miss the legal analyses. I miss the problem-solving. I miss the statutory reconstruction. I miss thinking about “If x is the lawn, then what are the ramifications, if y is the law, then what are the downfalls.” So I do miss that, but I’m happy to say that I work very well with the Attorney General’s office and I’m able to maintain that connection because my agency has a sufficient number of cases before the state supreme court that I’m able to keep my finger in it that way.
What’s your opinion on gay marriage?
Well, I was on the Kerrigan [vs. Commissioner of Public Health] decision in favor of it, so I’m on record as being very supportive.
Speaking of court cases, in Kelo vs. New London, you were in the dissent—when you look at New London and see that they’ve never really developed that property—
—how do you feel about that?
I’m very saddened by that because that exactly was the crux of Justice Zarella’s dissent, that if you’re going to do that, if you’re going to create development as just like blight, then treat it like that, then use it as a basis or a reason to take people’s property, you’re going to have to demonstrate that the plan you have in place is real, and that it’s more likely than not, going to come to fruition. The fact that it didn’t just really validates the position that he took on that opinion with which I joined.
Do you ever look back at some decisions and wish you had ruled differently?
No. I tell my colleagues occasionally when they come over to my side, I say, “Well, I’m sorry you didn’t do it sooner. I’m glad that you’ve done it at least now.” I’m joking, obviously. You know, I don’t regret any decisions. Honestly, I don’t look back on any cases and say, “I should’ve ruled differently” or “I’m sorry I didn’t rule differently,” because as a matter of law, I took the best shot I could in terms of analyzing. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but nothing has persuaded me that I was wrong. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t regret some of those decisions, and in fact, regretted them when I wrote them. You don’t always like the outcome. I have my role, the legislature has its role, and there’s a lot of times I was interpreting the legislative scheme for example, and I don’t agree with it, but I wasn’t an elected legislator, that was what was evidenced in legislative history, that was the language the legislature used, etc.—and this is an example, I’m not even talking about any particular case. But sometimes you reach an outcome on something and it’s not one you’re really happy about but it’s what the law compels.
What do you think the biggest challenge is for families today?
This gets back to all the things that create stress. Certainly, poverty, loss of jobs, loss of hope. I wish we could do a better job, and I think we’re doing an enormous amount this year on education, because that really is key. But in terms of challenges that families face, it’s really socioeconomic. That hasn’t changed. I think having hope is very important. I’m very big about expectations. I always tell people that to me, people can always rise to challenges and they can rise to levels based on expectations. But I also have to live in the real world, and for a lot of our families—and I’m certainly a big believer that people can certainly help create their own opportunities—but sometimes they can really get beaten down as well. The biggest concerns that I have are ones that I can’t necessarily solve, but I can help them navigate.
What were your challenges in having such a successful career, raising two kids and finding time for your family?
I had a very wonderful, supportive husband, frankly. I really do think that people need supports, wherever you get them. When I grew up, it was funny because certainly, let’s say in my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, people really did have very strong families. It wasn’t unusual to grow up in two-family homes and you grandma and grandpa and all of that. I didn’t have that; I had friends who were all young, career moms who really thought we were going to have it all. I have mixed feelings about that Atlantic Monthly article about having it all—I think I did, but again, nothing’s perfect. If you have expectations and reasonable goals, it helps. The challenges I had . . . I was genuinely lucky. I had two wonderful kids and they didn’t have unusual problems. Actually, my son, who is now a pediatrician oddly enough, did have some significant health challenges early on but overcame them pretty quickly. And again, we had the ability and the resources and the supports to raise children. I don’t think people do it alone, and they certainly don’t do it alone successfully. We supported one another, my husband and I. Our family was from other states so I didn’t have that kind of a network, but as I said, I had a lot of friends, and we were all sort of going through it together—that’s very comforting because you help each other and you share your struggles and stresses. It’s like anything else. And a lot of luck, let me tell you. Life is luck, talent and timing, and I’d rather be lucky than good, and I’ve had enormous luck.
What are your expectations the future of DCF?
Well, I want to see the continue of the improvements that I’ve seen. From a numbers standpoint, I want to see fewer kids in care, I want to see more children with their families with community supports in place. I want to see kids who we have to remove, more of them placed with relatives or in foster homes and not in congregate care. I would be lying if I said I don’t care about the consent decree [mandating judicial oversight of DCF]; I care very much about it and I look forward to the day it’s no longer in place. And I want to continue to see dramatic improvements in terms of the community resources we can have and bring to bear to be able to better support our kids and families.
This article appeared in the November 2012 issue of Connecticut Magazine
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