Monday, July 30, 2012

Child welfare in Connecticut: This is what progress looks like

            About a year ago on this Blog I wrote that Joette Katz, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, was the gutsiest leader in American child welfare. 

            At the time, I wrote that when Katz resigned from the Connecticut Supreme Court to take the job the previous January. 

she immediately set about trying to reverse the take-the-child-and-run mentality that has dominated Connecticut DCF for decades. The state takes away children at a rate more than 45 percent above the national average, when entries into care are compared to the number of impoverished children in each state.  And it warehouses children in group homes and institutions at one of the highest rates in the nation.

But most important, Katz refused to back down after the death of a child “known to the system” made headlines.

One year later, Katz’ courage is paying off.  According to an excellent story in the Hartford Courant:

Reforms have begun to take hold at the state's $820 million child-protection agency, a department that lurched from crisis to crisis with child-removal, institutionalization, and public spending rates that far exceeded the national average year after year.

Eighteen months into the tenure of Commissioner Joette Katz, child advocates, lawmakers and outside observers say they see significant and encouraging signs of improvement at the Department of Children and Families. …

There are fewer kids in large residential centers, fewer kids in out-of-state placements, fewer child removals with no immediate effect on child safety, fewer kids returning to DCF custody after having been reunited with family, and more kids living with relatives or significant family friends as foster parents, DCF records show.

The director of the state’s leading child advocacy organization, Connecticut Voices for Children, is impressed:

"[Katz is] telling the workers that she knows that every decision they make — remove the child, leave the child — entails risks. She's asking the workers to consider the whole broad array of resources available to a family, including the extended family. And she recognizes that simply removing a child is, in itself, a trauma, sometimes a needed trauma, but still a trauma. And that is a sea change for this department.''

So are legislators in both parties:

"Each death is so laden with emotion — you want to be sick,'' said state Sen. Len Suzio of Meriden, the ranking Republican on the legislature's select committee on children.

"Still, there needs to be a measured response, not a knee-jerk reaction,'' said Suzio. "From Joette Katz we are getting judicial temperament along with an intense commitment to her mission. Remember, this was an agency that couldn't clean up its act. Now, we're seeing improvement on a steady trajectory. It's still early, but she is staying the course.”

The co-chair of the legislature’s Select Committee on Children, Rep. Diana Urban, also is supportive:

Where past DCF administrations "pulled back and became ultraconservative” [after high profile tragedies] Katz "is empowering her workers to make decisions about individual cases,'' said Urban, a Democrat of North Stonington. "When she's here, in front of us, she's backing up her workers. She is not shrinking from the reforms.''

Katz has made clear she has no plans to change that:

"We can't be in a reactive, crisis mode all the time … We are not going to go around just putting out fires. We are not going to stop taking educated risks and exercising our professional judgment. Like police, like fire, tragedies will happen, even if you do everything right.''

Katz also knows what happens in the wake of the usual response to high-profile tragedies: A foster-care panic, a sharp sudden spike in removals of children from their homes.  Such panics only overload caseworkers so they have less time to find children in real danger.  Foster-care panics make all children less safe.

Even the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights, which has a decades-old consent decree in Connecticut, isn’t getting in the way -  so far.

How long can the progress last?  Who knows?  Sometimes reform-minded leaders cave as soon as there is a high-profile tragedy.  Katz has not.  But in other cases, a new governor takes office and decides to put political expediency ahead of policies that truly protect children.  It happened just that way in Connecticut nearly two decades ago. 

A reform-minded DCF Commissioner had made significant progress.  Then in 1995, shortly after then Governor John Rowland took office, a child “known to the system” died.  Rowland exploited the tragedy and reversed all the reforms.  Nine years later, Rowland resigned in disgrace and was jailed for corruption.  The agency he wrecked did not start to recover until Katz became commissioner.

Could history repeat itself?  Of course.  But even if it does, for every day Katz’s reforms stay in place, Connecticut children face less risk of being torn needlessly from everyone they know and love.  For every day the reforms stay in place, children who really must be taken from their homes are more likely to be placed with a relative and less likely to be institutionalized.  And for every day the reforms stay in place, DCF caseworkers will be less overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. So they’ll have more time to find children in real danger.

In child welfare, this is what progress looks like.