Christine Stuart photo
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and DCF Commissioner Joette Katz (Christine Stuart photo)

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy praised the Department of Children and Families’ success in placing children who have found themselves in the foster care system with relatives or family friends.

According to Malloy, the department has increased the number of children placed with relatives or close friends to 42 percent. He said the number represents the highest level ever in Connecticut and doubles the amount the agency was placing in 2011 when he first took office.

The announcement Tuesday at a regional DCF office in Middletown comes just days after DCF announced two child-protection workers were suspended and two others are the subject of an internal investigation arising from a foster-care placement in Groton where the aunt of an 18-month-old was charged with abusing the child.

“While the numbers released today seem to be a positive thing, we need to correct the mistakes within the kinship placement system that have led to children being placed in dangerous settings,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said. “There’s still more work that must be done to ensure that children are placed in safe homes. Child safety must always come before family preservation.”

The report is just the most recent black eye for the department. The Hartford Courant reported in May that living with a sex offender isn’t an automatic disqualifier for placing a child in a home. Further, NBC Connecticut recently reported that $200,000 in payments were mistakenly made to families with children who already had aged out of the foster care system or returned home to their biological parents.

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz, who Malloy credits for its success, told the Courant in May that decisions about leaving children in households with sex offenders are made on a case-by-case basis.

“I can’t help but feel that today’s press conference was an attempt to distract from the very real problems that have arisen in multiple cases of children being placed with family members and not receiving the care DCF should have been providing,” Fasano said.

However, Malloy continues to support Katz, despite what critics may say about her performance or management style.

Malloy said the number of children placed outside Connecticut has shrunk “mightily” under Katz’s leadership. He said doubling the number of kinship placements is a great accomplishment. He also cited the reduction in children placed in group homes or congregate care settings. Katz said there are 1,000 fewer children in congregate care settings today than when she took the job.

Malloy said perhaps the biggest accomplishment is the change in how the department operates. It’s no longer designed to favor congregate care settings or placing children with foster families they’ve never met before.

“These are real accomplishments in a department which had modernized itself and it’s approach,” Malloy said.

Malloy attributed much of the progress the agency has made to Katz, the former Supreme Court Justice, he reappointed in 2015 to head the department.

At that time Katz decided to take the job six years ago perhaps the biggest hurdle the she and Malloy would tackle would be how to get out from under a federal court order.

DCF is still being monitored by the federal court for a complaint that was brought back in 1998. The class action brought on behalf of foster children alleged that the department failed to make reasonable efforts to keep families together, failed to provide adequate staffing, and failed to protect children.

Katz said they’ve made significant progress in complying with the court order, including on 16 of the 22 measures used to evaluate the agency. All 22 measures must be met and sustained for two consecutive quarters in order to get rid of the federal court monitor.

But dedicating the resources to doing that in a difficult fiscal environment will not be easy.

Recently, 141 Department of Children and Families employees received layoff notices.

“We need to spend the amount of money we need to spend to get it right,” Malloy said Tuesday.

As for the $200,000 in payments mistakenly made, according to an NBC Connecticut report, Katz expressed some concern.

Katz said there have been 9,000 families that have received some sort of subsidy over the six years she’s been in charge of the agency.

“So do the math,” Katz said. “I don’t mean to treat it lightly because quite frankly I’m running a department now with $100 million less than when I came in . . . every penny counts.”

However, Katz said it was an “oversight and a misstep and we are recovering that money.”

Christine Stuart photo
Kathy Coale and her nephew Avery (Christine Stuart photo)

At the press conference in Middletown, Kathy Coale and her nephew, Avery, attested to the difference that kinship foster care has made in Avery’s life and her own.

Avery’s father, who was Coale’s brother, died suddenly making the placement necessary. She said she wasn’t necessarily a close relative. She said she had seen Avery and his older brother, who graduated college this summer, once a year on Christmas Eve. But she took the boys in.

Before that, Avery said, he didn’t have any ambition in life, had terrible grade,s and was doing a lot of “messed up things” he knew he shouldn’t be doing.

He said his Auntie Kathy helped turn his life around and he went from having terrible grades and attendance to having a job where he works as much as he wants. He’s also participating in football and track at his high school.

“I’m happy,” Avery said. “I actually have goals in life now, which is pretty crazy because I didn’t really have any.”