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After Katz’s departure, new chapter at DCF

November 26, 2018

The Department of Children and Families wouldn’t trust Andrew Lamkin to care for his son and daughter after the agency removed them from their mother’s custody. He participated in group counseling and took random drug tests, but the child welfare agency was unwilling to take a chance on him.

“I was never looked at as a viable option for custody in DCF’s eyes, even though I was the only one fighting for them,” Lamkin told legislators at a public hearing in 2012, describing his experience with DCF two years earlier. “It seemed like I was fighting a system that was geared to make me quit.”

And then he met Joette Katz, who had recently traded in her robe as a justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court for the rough-and-tumble work of running DCF, an agency that draws more and harsher public scrutiny than any other.

“After meeting with (her), everything turned around,” he told legislators shortly after Katz took office.

Lamkin and his children would be some of the first to be affected by changes in DCF policy under the fledgling administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, whose new commissioner ordered her staff to take more risks.

Katz, who served under Malloy for the entire eight years of his governorship, is leaving the agency next month after what is believed to be one of the longest tenures leading a state child-protection agency in the nation.

But it wasn’t always easy. Despite Malloy’s loyalty to her, Katz’s abrasive personality, refusal to back down from controversial decisions, as well as her decision to march the child protection agency in a new and sometimes perilous direction, resulted in a rocky eight years.

Connecticut in context

When she took the job, Katz said, she asked staff to think twice before removing abused or neglected kids from their families, rather than taking the safer route of removing them and putting them with strangers in foster homes, out-of-state institutions or group homes.

“I didn’t say keep kids with their relatives at all costs. I said to staff, ‘Use your brains,’ ” Katz recalled during an interview earlier this month. “I don’t want to minimize the work that goes into family placements, in terms of struggles with the issues of poverty and mental health issues. So it’s not just saying, ‘You are with a relative. Good we’re done.’ ”

Numerous restrictions that were keeping families apart, such as non-violent criminal records or a history of substance abuse from prior years, were relaxed under Katz.

As a result, the number of children entering foster care in Connecticut dipped 19 percent since 2010, bucking the national trend, which has experienced a 3 percent increase. And when they do enter foster care, these abused or neglected children are now more likely to be placed with other family members.

Connecticut’s record of placing children with family members when DCF determined they couldn’t remain at home was among the worst in the nation when Malloy took office in 2011. With 37 percent of foster children now living with another family member, Connecticut now has one of the highest rates.

Keeping more families together by removing fewer children from their homes and placing them with other relatives when they do need to be removed has resulted in Connecticut having one of the fastest decreases in the number of children in state custody — dropping 16 percent compared to a national increase of 8 percent.

This means that about 700 fewer children are in foster care on any given day now in Connecticut than they were in 2010.

Mistakes happen

Some children didn’t fare well when they were kept with their families, however.

The state’s Office of the Child Advocate, an independent watchdog agency, released several reports over the last eight years criticizing DCF for what it termed as systemic issues with the vast agency’s oversight of children who were allowed to remain with their families.

In the case of baby Dylan in 2016, DCF staff dismissed the pleas of the relative caring for the child, who repeatedly reached out for help. Agency staff failed to notice months of malnourishment and the child’s near-starvation, nor did they identify a troubling criminal and substance-abuse history in the home where he was placed.

In the case of Londyn Sack in 2015, police were called because the 2-year-old, who was under DCF supervision, was found wandering in the snow in a diaper and tee-shirt. DCF had received several phone calls, including one from a police officer, warning that the child’s mother was unfit because of drug use, but the agency had continued to rate the case as low risk. Londyn died a few months later from a drug overdose after consuming a deadly dosage of drugs found in his mother’s home.

These are far from the only children who suffered harm while in a relative’s care.

Advocates agree that leaving children in their homes or placing them with other family members is the best option — but only if proper safeguards are in place and services are available for families. Several advocates are concerned they are not, or that staff caseloads are too high to provide adequate supervision.

“Because a child dies in a home with an open DCF case does not mean that keeping families together, as a goal, is ill fated or undesirable,” Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate, said in 2014 after reviewing a series of fatal cases her team determined happened in the absence of necessary safeguards.

The federal courts have been overseeing DCF for almost 30 years for failing too many abused and neglected children. The federal court monitor, in his most recent review of the agency in August, reported that many front-line social workers have for years had caseloads too high to supervise at-risk children kept with their families, though a recent wave of new hires will help. He also concluded that wait lists for treatment for substance abuse, domestic violence and other health services remains an issue.

The 120 new workers that the administration recently hired even after the legislature rejected the funding is already having a noticeable impact.

But more social workers isn’t a panacea.

“You still have problems,” said Martha Stone, one of the lawyers behind the class-action lawsuit that led to federal oversight in 1991. “There shouldn’t be these wait lists for these programs. There is still a shortage of foster homes. There is still delay of referrals to programs.”

Concerns also remain about how the agency handles the more than 50,000 calls to its hotline from people reporting child abuse or neglect.

Prior to 2012, an investigation would have been launched, a social worker would have shown up at the family’s home unannounced, and the child would have been questioned.

These adversarial visits by DCF social workers often began with the parent refusing to answer questions and ended with the child being removed from the home only to enter the state’s over-burdened foster care system.

Now staff at the agency’s “Careline” assess the level of risk through the use of an algorithm and staff expertise to determine how the case needs to be handled. If it is deemed an emergency, staff will respond within hours. If it is low-risk, staff would schedule a time to meet with the family within 72-hours and offer them supports, that they are then able to decline without risking the loss of their children.

Of the roughly 13,000 cases sent down this path each year, it was determined in just under half the cases that they don’t need further agency involvement, a review of this approach in 2017 by the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work Performance Improvement Center found. The center also found that a quarter of the families were offered services but declined them, while most of the remaining cases were referred to various non-profit providers for help.

Most cases sent down this route don’t end back up on the agency’s radar in the near future. The UConn researchers report that 26 percent of the cases handled on the low-risk track would get another report against them for abuse or neglect within a year.

This flexibility in the handling of cases has become the new norm at DCF, with about 40 percent of cases being diverted down this path.

It is a national model known as a Differential Response System, and Connecticut followed the lead of 20 other states by implementing its own version, known as the Family Assessment Route.

The model is bi-partisan. Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s DCF commissioner, Susan Hamilton, laid the framework for Katz to roll it out.

Some high-profile cases that were diverted down this path — including that of Londyn Sack — have raised questions about whether this approach is too hands-off. Sack is one of 17 children who died after their families were placed on the low-risk path. Seven of those deaths were determined to be the result of maltreatment, UConn researchers reported in 2015.

Katz says these high-profile cases are the outliers involving poor decisions by a handful of staff, not larger issues tied to the reforms themselves.

After a couple of high-profile tragedies, Katz restricted more cases from going down the DRS route if certain factors were present. She also emailed her entire, 3,240-person staff to reinforce the factors that would bar placement of a child with a relative without a waiver from her, including any criminal history or substantiated child-abuse allegations.

“You’re always judged by the one that didn’t go well or the one unpopular decision. But I own those. You can’t let perfection be the enemy of the good,” Katz said, quoting Voltaire. “I looked at that (baby Dylan) case and said, this should have never been a DRS case. The problem isn’t DRS. This was a staff mistake.”

‘A fresh start at DCF’

Gov.-Elect Ned Lamont will soon need to decide if he likes where the Malloy administration has taken the agency.

Katz informed her staff earlier this month that she will not seek to remain in the job under the new administration.

Lamont has not weighed in on the direction of DCF or said what changes he may seek. Requests for an interview on the subject have gone unanswered.

Asked about his priorities for the agency during an unrelated press conference at the state Capitol, his response was restrained.

“We get a fresh start at DCF and we’re going to spend a lot of time there because it’s just vital that we get that right in terms of those kids, in terms of honoring those families,” Lamont said. “I am not displeased at this point, but it is so vitally important to those kids and those families. I have had some involvement there with my family over many years and I know how important it is that we really get it right and don’t take unnecessary risks.”

State Rep. Toni Walker, one of four co-chairs of Lamont’s transition team, has identified several reforms she would like to see enacted at DCF, including finding ways to retain foster families and evaluate programs.

“Data is a stumbling block I think with DCF,” said Walker, who is a social worker and assistant principal at an alternative school with many DCF-involved youth. “I don’t think we get enough data from DCF.”

The agency’s current data system was found to be non-compliant in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. A new system that will better help the $770 million agency better track what works — and doesn’t — is currently under development.

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