A leading Republican lawmaker is questioning whether Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz is fully committed to reforming the troubled agency in light of two recent reports citing deficiencies in its operations.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Katz rejected legislation he proposed this year that would have addressed some of the problems with her agency that are brought up most often by advocates for children. The six bills ranged from implementing a quality assurance program for the department’s locked facilities to increasing public access to agency records. Only one bill made it out of committee and never reached the Senate floor.
“While Commissioner Katz came into office in 2011 promising dramatic improvement in DCF’s care and programs for children, the reality is that, over four years later, DCF has regressed under her leadership and is failing to meet the needs of our children by a greater degree than ever,” Fasano said.
Katz was reappointed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy earlier this year despite a number of controversial decisions that drew criticism from child advocates, Republican lawmakers, and attorneys during Malloy’s first term. Some of their complaints include her handling of Jane Doe, a troubled transgender youth in DCF care, to the increase in children with mental illness in emergency rooms. But Malloy praised the former state Supreme Court justice for her leadership capabilities and compassion.
With the release of a quarterly report last week from the federal court monitor overseeing the $821.4 million agency, Fasano stopped just short of expressing no confidence in the commissioner.
“Last year, the court monitor found that the quality of DCF’s abuse investigations, case management, and care coordination had deteriorated under Commissioner Katz,” Fasano said. “Now we are seeing serious deficiencies persist, leaving children at risk and without vital services.”
The report showed that DCF has failed to meet seven of 22 benchmarks, including those that address the timely development of case plans and the department’s ability to meet children’s needs for medical and mental health services. The federal monitor attributed some of that poor performance to excessive workloads following a hiring freeze last year and the subsequent arrival of 150 new employees.
The report also acknowledged that the recently signed state budget does not fully fund the programs necessary to address department deficiencies and cited $1.8 million in annualized rescissions that will further affect its ability to operate effectively.
To Fasano, the numbers show a department that has deteriorated under Katz’s leadership. He said DCF developed adequate treatment plans for children only 47.2 percent of the time compared to 86.5 percent in 2010, and successfully met children’s needs only 47.2 percent of the time compared to 67.3 percent in 2010.
In a statement attached to the report, Katz said efforts to engage managers more fully in planning each child’s personalized plan should yield improvements soon. “We expect that if managers ‘dig in deep’ in case planning, it will be reflected in supervision, case work, and an office culture that uses the plan as the basis for all activities and not simply a document to be filled out,” she said.
The report found that only the Norwich and Willimantic offices met at least 80 percent of their clients’ needs for medical, dental, mental health, and other services.
Katz blamed the agency’s failure to achieve the benchmark on the lack of available services in certain areas.
Most of Katz’s response to the monitor’s report, however, focused on the “positive and encouraging” trends it revealed. She said there are about 16 percent fewer children in state care than there were in 2011 and 58 percent fewer children living in group settings.
“Seventy-three percent of children in care are living in a family setting,” she said.
The department has seen consistent success in 14 areas under federal scrutiny, including prevention of repeat maltreatment, searching for relatives, and keeping siblings together.
The federal monitor’s report came just days after a study into the department’s two locked facilities for boys and girls in Middletown showed the need for more changes.
In her statement alongside the release of consultant Robert Kinscherff’s report, Katz said some of the recommended improvements — like greater adherence to trauma-informed care, a suicide prevention audit, and reduction in the use of restraint and seclusion — already were under way as the agency works to create a “therapeutic and rehabilitative system” to help children succeed.
But Fasano said he isn’t buying it, especially after a similar state-funded evaluation in 2013 by the Georgetown Center for Juvenile Justice didn’t result in any real change.
“The Georgetown study brought up many concerns I sought to address in multiple legislative proposals this year dealing with data collection, quality assurance, independent oversight, and accountability,” Fasano said. “But instead of implementing these reforms, Katz commissioned another report with a hand-picked consultant. She has failed to implement the reforms recommended by Georgetown and many child advocates. Instead she’s paying for different recommendations from another source.”