Nationally Acclaimed, Locally Controversial: Joette Katz Reflects on an Unusually Long Tenure Running Connecticut’s Foster Care System

Joette Katz has left the building. The former Connecticut state Supreme Court Justice, who served as commissioner of state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) for both of former Gov. Daniel Malloy’s (D) terms, put in her last day in January.

Connecticut DCF child welfare joette Katz
Joette Katz, photo courtesy of Shipman & Goodwin LLP

Katz garnered national recognition from influential advocacy groups like Casey Family Programs for her efforts around reducing the number of youth in foster care, increasing kin placements, and decreasing the number of youth in congregate care facilities. She also generated plenty of controversy locally over an unusually long tenure overseeing a child welfare system.

“The inability of her team to get inside the home of starving teenager Matthew Tirado, [and] her insistence on a locked ward for girls that later closed … made her a lightning rod of controversy at home,” as the Connecticut journalist Josh Kovner put it in a recent story for the Hartford Courant. Overall, deaths due to child maltreatment remained very low as a percentage of the state’s child population, peaking at 16 deaths in 2013 and again in 2014. Twenty-four of those children over a two-year period had prior involvement with Katz’s agency.

In early 2017, both houses of the Connecticut state legislature voted overwhelmingly against a proposal from Katz and the plaintiffs in a landmark child neglect case that led to decades-long federal oversight of DCF, which continues today. The proposal would have guaranteed more money for the system, which had seen significant budget cuts since the Great Recession.

After a few days off, Katz has started working with Shipman & Goodwin LLP as a partner in the Business Litigation Practice Group. Among her new duties, she “will assist the firm’s clients both when facing government investigations, and in the conduct of their own internal investigations, across a broad range of industries and subject areas,” according to a release by the firm.

Katz recently spoke with The Chronicle of Social Change about her tenure, and the future of the field, with key new federal policies about to come online.

What do you consider your top few accomplishments in this role?

When I came into the agency it was really recovering from past administrations. There were foster care panics: There’d be a child death and the next day, 500 kids would get removed; past administrations were told heads would roll. Governors had not been supportive of the department and people were responding to fear.

I wanted to change the culture and empower people to be much more family focused and family friendly. Culture can eat ideas for lunch — so I really needed to identify overarching themes and priorities that would dovetail with all of that. We had far too many children in congregate care, in institutions.

It wasn’t safer for kids, but it was safer for staff. I needed to overcome that perception that fewer bad things happen and it’s easier to manage caseloads with children in congregate care. I said, “People should have breakfast with the same person who put them to bed.”

The other priority was relative care. People had the wrong idea that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, but it’s far more traumatic for a child to be placed with a stranger than a relative.

We had to be much more trauma focused. It’s a “duh” point, but implementing it was trickier.

Fourteen percent of foster youth went with relatives or fictive kin [when I began]. We now have about 44 percent of our kids with family. It’s really quite dramatic. In terms of kids no longer in congregate care settings, we went from roughly 31 percent of our kids and now at about 7.5 percent, many of those for psychiatric of medically complex reasons.

I think roughly at the end of the day we saved 79 cents on every dollar by eliminating congregate beds and reinvesting in community services.

What were the biggest challenges you faced pursuing those numbers?

Relative foster families can’t readily absorb the kids without challenges. When you sign up to be a foster parent, you do a lot of advance planning and training. But you don’t get any of that when you are a relative who gets a kid abruptly. We started implementing a teaming process — instead of a social worker making a decision with only supervisor oversight, we brought in teams of people — specialists on substance abuse and domestic violence to help on each case in each region.

We also developed “considered removal meetings,” starting in 2013. DCF began asking parents to bring relatives and friends to these meetings, prior to removing a child, or within 48 hours of doing so. They would be moderated by a neutral facilitator, to help come up with an action plan for stabilizing the family and keeping children safe.

We went around the state and met with judges and lawyers who said, “Wait, what do you mean you are bringing my client to the table to say something incriminating?” As a former judge, I understood where they were coming from. We have considered removal meetings before the child is removed in 80 percent of the time. Sometimes there’s an immediate danger. Fifty percent of the time the children did not end up getting removed. And of the 50 percent of the 80 percent that did have to be removed, half of those children went to relatives or someone they knew.

We often still had to provide services and work with the family, but it eliminated nearly half the child removals and minimized the trauma because half of them were going to people they knew. Not only has it been successful but those numbers are stable. It’s not just beginner’s luck. Caseloads are down 10 percent, and they were even lower, frankly, despite the opioid crisis. We are between 4,200 and 4,300 youth in foster care, down from 4,800 when I came in. We’ve been as low as 3,800.

What important legislative developments do you see coming down the pike for child welfare?

CAPTA reauthorization. [Katz refers here to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, a federal law that is due for reauthorization this year.]

Hospitals having to notify us about babies born testing positive for any substances [would] be interesting. I’m going to be interested to see who really gets reported. It’s important to remember that it’s just a notification, not a report of abuse or neglect; but how many hospitals are going to start reporting it as abuse or neglect because they are concerned about liability issues?

And how is it going to get reported? Mom on prescription medication, will that result in something? I highlight it because it’s an opportunity to think about things through a racial justice lens.

We have in Connecticut, and nationally, we have a huge problem with domestic minor sex traffic and they are being trafficked in a variety of venues including hotels and motels. We have made hotels be trained and the feds just passed new legislation incentivizing hotels of a certain size to train staff.

What are the biggest remaining challenges facing Connecticut’s system moving forward?

Our funding still hasn’t recovered from the 2008 recession. I had a budget of $895 million and it’s now about $765. That’s a dramatic reduction. When I came in, I said we can do more with less, but we’ve gone way beyond that.

Frankly, our fiscal challenge has been about prevention — a lot of things we’ve done have been through that lens. We launched a social impact bond project working with Yale. It’s a public-private partnership, and we’re watching that closely.

Social finance has brought some controversy, but we all read Nicholas Kristoff on these horrible things happening far away. Things are happening here, too. Do we want to try to eradicate it or close our eyes? I’m very supportive of enhancing the pool of available funding however we responsibly can.

Connecticut has been under a consent decree stemming from a class-action lawsuit since 1991. It was your stated goal to help Connecticut get out from under it. What kept you from achieving that goal?

We went from having to meet 22 accountability measures and we’re down to five. Two of the five have been narrowed. We’ve seen enormous progress. When I came in, we could actually say ahead of time which cases were going to be identified as failing by the consent decree monitor.

Still, I was hoping to get out, and I did not succeed. The biggest thing that stood in the way was fiscal. There were hiring freezes and delays. One of the big issues obviously is having enough social workers and our process was a bit absurd. You wait for somebody to quit then you post their job, then you put them through six months of training.

The caseload of the person departing gets distributed around in the meantime. Each time a case moves you cut down the chances of achieving permanency for that child. It’s a recipe for disaster. That was largely, if not exclusively, due to the fiscal climate that Governor Malloy inherited. We now have predictive hiring to address that. That’s been enormous.

The other big challenge was around our IT system, and we are in the process of redoing it with $120 million in federal dollars. Getting tablets for staff. They are out in the field with families, but then they have to enter everything in an antiquated system. And they were spending 20 percent of their time doing that.

I had to make a calculated bet if I wanted to re-litigate this case. My predecessors did that and lost. This was an agreement. Rather than walking in and proving the judgment should be modified or thrown out, I took a different approach, and my approach was much less litigious or adversarial. They liked what they saw and stood down.

I honestly think if our fiscal climate had been different and we had not lost time we would have finished the job.

How do you feel about the class action strategy in general? Children’s Bureau Commissioner Jerry Milner recently weighed in critically.

You do spend some money chasing compliance. And you can certainly spend that time and money better. But I think states also need to be better at monitoring at themselves. Between the [federal] and the state oversight that agencies like mine get, I think there’s enough oversight. It’s not that these lawsuits have lost their luster but certainly, in a state like Connecticut, they’ve become less significant.

We need to be a lot more about critical thinking. There’s always a danger with a lawsuit and compliance-driven system that it encourages people to say, ‘I checked the box.’ Look at family visitation [for children placed in foster care] — you have to visit X number of times per month. Should it be quantity or quality of that visit?

The feds have recently announced that Title IV-E, the main entitlement for federal child welfare funding, can be used for legal support to parents and kids. You were a judge before you led DCF … do you see a way that the courts can work with your agency on a way to tap into that offer? 

Quite frankly, we haven’t had conversations with the public defenders’ office and the courts. Those conversations are really in their infancy phase. But I think there’s a lot of education that needs to go on. The lawyers representing kids need supports. It’s not the place to cut your teeth. The public defender’s office is challenged as it is to get competent lawyers … who are able to give the time necessary.

There are opportunities here. That’s probably what’s needed to get good quality representation at … hearings. Kids half the time tell me they’ve never met their lawyer.

What about parents?

I’d love to see more done with kids. That’s where I see the biggest vulnerability. To be able to pay them appropriately for court proceedings, but also to increase visitation, to see them more at the table for planning meetings at schools, and case review that goes on periodically with kids.

Do you believe that Connecticut is well-positioned to take advantage of the Family First Act? Will this new law pose challenges for the state?

I think meetings are going on as we speak. We’ve got opportunities, we’re looking to steal shamelessly from other jurisdictions.

The worse behaviors were being incentivized — foster care. Foster care is essential, but it’s far better to never remove in the first place. The things we did, the federal government is finally saying we can prioritize that.

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Michael Fitzgerald
About Michael Fitzgerald 65 Articles
Northeast Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Follow me on Twitter: @mchlftzgrld