Originally published by the Connecticut Law Tribune
A few of you may recall the story I told to the Bridgeport Bar Association in 2011 about my decision to step down from the Supreme Court to serve as Connecticut's DCF Commissioner—to give up the job that most lawyers would kill for to assume one that most lawyers would rather be organ donors while still alive than take on.
It was Thanksgiving, 2010, and my son was home on break from his last year in medical school. While my husband tried desperately to challenge my thinking, my son tried to encourage me, inserting himself in the conversation. He always understood his mother—my theory is that women have sons to have better versions of their husbands. So he began by reminding me of things I had said to him growing up.
First was my cautionary advice to him, "The greatest risk in life is not taking one." I responded, "Yes," but I also often said, "Do as I say, not as I do."
Second he shared, "Well, if you want to talk scary, next year I'll be doing spinal taps on preemies." To which I responded, "Well, you want to talk scary—if I take this job, I'll be the statutory parent to nearly 5,000 kids—how's that for scary? So, what else do you have?" (As an aside, in my world, you get three trips to the well to persuade me of your position.) He had one last opportunity to persuade me that this was a good thing to do.
He began by asking me about the Juan F. consent decree. "So, DCF is under a consent decree?" To which I answered, "Yes". Then he asked, "It's been under federal court supervision for 22 years, give or take?" To which I answered, "Yes". At which point he responded, "Well then, how much more are you going to f___ it up?" To which I immediately yelled—"That's it, I'm taking the job." And I never looked back.
First, between Thanksgiving, 2010, and January 5, 2011, my colleagues on the Supreme Court and I finished and released 19 opinions, leaving only two cases that had been argued before me, one of which was a death penalty case, without resolution. My colleagues and all the clerks and staff were spectacular during this process.
Then, although I was familiar with the lengthy history of Juan F., I had an enormous amount of work ahead of me. I had sat as a juvenile court judge in the early 1990s and had written opinions on the Supreme Court concerning the operative statutory scheme, but I was hardly an expert on child welfare, best practices, national trends, how to help families ensure safety, permanency and well-being, how to deliver mental health and substance use care and treatment, and domestic violence services—the list was endless and my knowledge deficient.
I began by reading everything I could get my hands on from national experts in the field and getting advice from countless providers, educators, community leaders, doctors, social workers, lawyers—this list was also endless. In addition, I turned to the 800-pound gorilla in the room—Juan F.
To educate those readers who might be blissfully ignorant of this case, in 1989, the civil rights class action, aka Juan F., seeking prospective declarative and injunctive relief was brought on behalf of all children involved in the Connecticut child welfare system, both at the "front end" of the system whose families were the subject of allegations of abuse, neglect or abandonment and who faced possible investigation, family separation and removal from home, as well as children removed and placed into "out of home" foster care.
Allegations were that structural failures in Connecticut's child welfare system harmed the plaintiff class and placed them at risk of harm, in violation of their federal constitutional and statutory rights by failing to make reasonable efforts to keep families together, to adequately investigate child abuse and neglect complaints and to provide adequate safety, oversight and health care services to the plaintiff class.
As a result of those structural failures, according to the complaint, "Connecticut's child welfare system endangers children it is charged to protect, causes harm to children it is charged to help, and has been allowed to deteriorate to a state of systemic, ongoing crisis."
From the outset, the parties and the court endeavored to resolve the disputes through mediation, and after months of reviewing documents, interviewing DCF employees and holding public hearings, the panel guided by Judge Zampano proposed a 120-page consent decree that set forth a detailed plan to improve DCF operations. The initial consent decree was approved and adopted as an injunctive court order in 1992 by Judge Nevas, compliance with which was to be overseen by a court monitor, Ray Mancuso.
Following a decade that showed some improvements, in 2003, a final exit plan that detailed outcome measures governing 22 structural areas of DCF's operation, which were designed to address known areas of deficiency or concern, was thereafter ordered by the court and sustained compliance with all of the outcome measures was a prerequisite for requesting termination of the court's jurisdiction.
During the next eight years, a number of structural changes were launched, including the creation of a system of neighborhood-based service delivery; the employment of 145 new permanent social workers, supervisors and case aids; enhanced support to families and children returning home from residential treatment, including development of family support teams, treatment foster care, group homes and wrap-around services; and the provision of emergency services. DCF thereafter made progress in meeting a number of the outcome measures.
Importantly, DCF subsequently began implementing an array of initiatives to reduce reliance on institutions and other group facilities ("congregate care facilities"); strengthen its efforts to recruit, retain and support foster families; clear its backlog of overdue health care screens; and address other unmet needs of children in its custody. Those initiatives, however, proved insufficient, and when, in 2010, the defendants moved to vacate the exit plan entirely, terminate jurisdiction and close the case, after full briefing and an evidentiary hearing, United States District Judge Droney denied the defendants' motion.
Last week the parties filed a joint motion to terminate jurisdiction and close the case before Judge Underhill. I am deeply humbled by their words. In that motion, the parties (plaintiffs represented by attorneys Ira Lustbader and Steven Frederick, and defendant represented by Deputy Attorney General Joseph Rubin) jointly attribute much of the progress thereafter to my appointment as DCF commissioner by then-Gov. Malloy. "The trajectory of DCF's reforms toward achieving full compliance and exit turned a comer in 2011. Joette Katz, then-Connecticut State Supreme Court Justice, was appointed as DCF Commissioner by then-Governor Dannel Malloy, and immediately sought to overhaul DCF's organizational structure . . . spearheaded fundamental policy changes that emphasized a family-centered approach to all service delivery at DCF. Those policies reflected the policy imperative, maintained in full force through today at DCF, that children do better in families, especially their own immediate and extended kinship families, and that with very rare exceptions, institutions and other forms of congregate care should be used only as a short-term treatment modality, not as a form of placement for children."
They cite many other structural improvements designed to build trust with families, including the implementation of the differential response system, which avoided formal investigation and the possibility of removal and family separation by supporting families with lower-risk profiles with referrals to voluntary community-based services, and a "teaming" process that preceded and followed removals, in which families and DCF would collaboratively develop plans to keep children home or rapidly return children home to their families and communities. The use of relative or "kinship" care as a housing placement for youth in foster care dramatically increased (21.1% to 44%) as the number of children in restrictive congregate care facilities plunged (29.7% to 7.5%), and children were no longer routinely sent out of state (363 children reduced to 8).
No one person does this work alone. I had an amazing team who carried my water to the staff we had to empower, the community we had to engage and the providers we had to persuade. The hardest part was changing a culture of fear that had been instilled in workers from previous governors; I learned first-hand what "culture eats strategy for lunch" means. But only when workers felt safe to do what they knew was in the best interest of children—to remain with parents with the supports they needed, to go with kin whenever possible if they could not stay home and to get the treatment they needed in community based settings as opposed to congregate facilities often out of reach of families—could we see appreciable progress.
Most importantly, I had an incredible boss, without whom I never could have functioned. In fact, it is only because I knew that I would have his support and confidence that I agreed to take on the responsibility. Historically, the average life of DCF commissioners around the country is one and a half to two years because they get kicked to the curb the first time something goes wrong—and something always goes wrong. Gov. Malloy understood that change is hard and that many providers were going to be unhappy with the practice shift, and that consequently many legislators were also going to be unhappy but he also understood that my job was to do what was in the best interest of children.
There were, however, still deficiencies, due largely to front-line staffing shortages, exacerbated by hiring freezes and reductions. My successor, Vanessa Dorantes, continued the journey set in the 2017 revised exit plan that I negotiated with the plaintiffs and the 2018 strategic plan, and she and her team worked arduously to achieve the staffing needed, improve on the nascent racial justice work, enhance the services needed for older youth, continue to promote quality improvement and build and support community partnerships. Certainly Gov. Lamont deserves recognition for his leadership in helping achieve the needed legislative support. Today there exists a very different DCF from when the lawsuit first began, and states around the country look to Connecticut for guidance.
During my tenure, I learned a lot, and I certainly made some mistakes along the way. But hopefully, I can finally answer my son's third question—"Not at all."
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