Hugh McQuaid photo
DCF Commissioner Joette Katz (Hugh McQuaid photo)

Citing recent reports highlighting problems at DCF’s two locked facilities, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano is calling on Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz to resign.

“Commissioner Katz’s autocratic leadership and misplaced priorities have undermined the effectiveness of her agency, put children at risk, and eroded public trust,” Fasano said. “Recent reports, including the Child Advocate’s report released yesterday, highlight the disturbing reality of persistent issues within DCF including the abuse of children at DCF’s locked facilities, the agency’s failure to investigate many of these cases, and a continuous struggle to embrace transparency.”

Katz was one of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s first appointments. Malloy plucked Katz from the Supreme Court bench and said her work experience — first as a public defender and then as a judge — leaves her well-prepared to lead a bureaucracy that has “too often failed our children.”

DCF’s chronic problems have bedeviled governors for decades.

On Thursday, a spokesman for Malloy defended his decision earlier this year to renominate Katz to continue as DCF commissioner.

Mark Bergman, Malloy’s director of communications, said Katz has one of the “toughest jobs in the state” and has been taking the criticism of her department very seriously.

He said Fasano’s opposition to Katz is a “petty political attack,” and added that Fasano is “not being serious about a very challenging, very difficult job.”

Fixing the problems at the $821.4 million agency are difficult and Katz has made progress, he said.

Since Katz took over the department there has been a 16 percent reduction in kids under the care of DCF and a 58 percent reduction of kids in group homes and institutional settings, Bergman said.

The administration has the “utmost confidence the commissioner will work to address the problems outlined in the report,” he added.

A spokesman for the agency said it is “vigorously responding” to issues raised by the Child Advocate’s report, which confirms concerns raised by a report from a national expert released last week.

“We already have started work with staff at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and the Pueblo Girls Unit on improving clinical treatment, reducing restraint and seclusion, and enhancing youth safety. Among the changes we are beginning to implement include: expanding clinical coverage to second shift; requiring clinical counseling for each seclusion; banning prone restraints and phasing out mechanical restraints; and asking youth to participate in developing crisis management plans to avoid restraints and seclusion,” Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman DCF, said.

Aside from the issues at the two locked facilities for boys and girls in Middletown, which were detailed in a report following an 18-month investigation by the state Child Advocate’s office, Fasano said Katz is not meeting the benchmarks set forth by a federal court monitor.

The federal court monitor’s 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.

“The Commissioner’s outright rejection of past criticism and proposed solutions is a disturbing abuse of power,” Fasano said. “Her opposition to efforts to increase transparency has hindered significant needed reforms. These recent reports are not the first we are hearing about mistreatment and a failure of the system under Commissioner Katz.”

Fasano also asked Attorney General George Jepsen to look into the allegations in the Child Advocate’s report regarding the DCF whistleblowers.

The Child Advocate’s report says many of the whistleblower calls to the DCF hotline about abuse or neglect within the two locked facilities were never accepted by DCF for further investigation, and records of the calls were not maintained after 60 days.

From the report: “Multiple facility staff spoke with OCA confidentially and raised concerns that certain adults are permitted to verbally abuse or threaten youth: ‘I’ll knock your jaw out.’ ‘I’ll beat your ass.’ ‘You are a piece of shit.’ A Parole Officer called in an allegation that his adolescent client was being bullied by certain facility staff, that he was called ‘retard,’ and ‘Forrest Gump.’ The allegation was accepted by DCF for investigation but was not substantiated.”

Jaclyn Falkowski, a spokesman for Jepsen, said they are reviewing Fasano’s letter and will respond formally at the appropriate time.

“Generally speaking, however, the Office of the Attorney General does not have general authority to investigate or oversee the operations of DCF or any other state agency. Under Connecticut’s whistleblower laws, complaints of mismanagement in state agencies are investigated in the first instance by the state Auditors of Public Accounts,” Falkowski said.

CTNJ file photo
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (CTNJ file photo)

Fasano also wrote to the co-chairs of the legislature’s Children’s Committee.

Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said that the job of DCF commissioner is the “toughest in state government.” She said it’s like trying to turn a cruise ship with a canoe panel.

Urban said she believes Katz recognizes there are problems “and she is dealing with them.”

“The way to solve the issue is not to have Joette Katz leave,” Urban said.

Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, the other co-chair of the Children’s Committee, said getting rid of Katz is not the answer to the problem. She said providing DCF with more support is a much better answer.

“She’s dealing with employees who have been there for a very long time, who have been set in their ways,” Bartolomeo said.

However, Bartolomeo said without the resources money for employee training isn’t available. She said the federal court monitor warned them they wouldn’t meet their benchmarks if they didn’t have the funding for certain programs.