A legislative panel unanimously recommended reconfirming controversial Children and Families Department Commissioner Joette Katz after a three-hour hearing in which Republicans repeatedly pitched proposals to create additional oversight of her agency.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reappointed Katz, a former state Supreme Court justice, to continue serving during his second term despite criticism of the direction she has taken the agency. House members of the legislature’s Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee voted 8-0 Wednesday to keep Katz’s legislative approval process moving forward. Four members were absent for the vote.
Although the commissioner’s tenure at DCF has been divisive, several House members credited her for leaving a secure position on the Supreme Court to helm a historically troubled agency.
“That’s something that most people would not do,” the committee’s vice chairman, Rep. Ed Vargas, said. “I agree with a lot of testimony about some of the problems with the agency. However, I believe that Commissioner Katz in four years has done a lot of good work in trying to straighten that agency out.”
Katz sparred, however, with Senate Republicans, who could not vote on the House resolution to approve her nomination. Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano used the hearing as an opportunity to pitch legislation, which Katz opposes, designed to create an independent ombudsman to oversee DCF.
“The fundamental problem that I’ve been hearing is people are afraid of your agency,” Fasano said. “They’re afraid to raise their voice, they’re afraid to ask questions, they’re afraid of what the agency and you, as commissioner, will do to them.”
Fasano said the legislature is obligated to address those concerns by installing an independent ombudsman. He added that Katz’s opposition to the idea “bothers” him.
Katz pushed back. She said the agency once had an ombudsman, which “wasn’t very helpful.” She said the position would not solve the “fundamental problem” that “we all need to be doing a better job.”
“My point is, the agency’s been down this road before. You’re right. You’re a policymaker. You get to make those decisions,” she said. “… If you believe that aside from the [Office of the Child Advocate], aside from [Connecticut Voices for Children], and aside from all of the lawyers and public defenders that we need yet another agency, you’re absolutely right — that’s your decision to make.”
During the hearing, Katz touted improvements made during her tenure. She pointed to an 18 percent decline in the number of children in her agency’s care and a 15 percent increase in the number of children in the agency’s care who live with a relative or someone they know. Meanwhile, she said, DCF has reduced the number of children in group care by 54 percent.
That reduction has raised some concerns. Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, cited a report by a court monitor that said the agency’s efforts to keep children out of group homes has reduced the children’s access to behavioral health treatment. The court monitor cautioned against further reducing group home placement until more community services are available.
“I understand your goal and it’s laudable, but maybe it’s just too much all at once? Is that possible?” Kane asked.
Katz said the court monitor’s report is based on outdated numbers and insisted her efforts have been directed at reducing children in homes without significant treatment programs.
During her tenure, Katz was also criticized for her handling of “Jane Doe,” a troubled transgender youth in DCF care. The case captured public attention nationally after DCF asked a court to transfer the teen into a state prison and a judge complied.
On Wednesday, Katz told lawmakers that the teen’s situation had improved outside of public scrutiny. She said things “turned around” when DCF was able to attend to her “and stop the noise.”
“I’m happy to say she is doing incredibly well,” she said. “I’m very cautious here because I think that part of the problem was she was made a celebrity, and what 16 year-old doesn’t want to be a celebrity, particularly one that has not gotten good attention or good exposure. I don’t want to compound that. But I am comfortable in saying she’s gotten every resource she needs, every service she needs and she’s going to be transitioning.”