For the Children and the Challenge
Hartford Magazine, by Joyce Rossignol, Photo by Lisa Brisson
Former Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz stepped down from the bench to take the hardest job in state government: heading up the huge and troubled Department of Children and Families.
The DCF deals with families whose children are reportedly abused or neglected. In addition to a hotline and 15 offices across the state, the department operates four children’s facilities: Connecticut Children’s Place in East Windsor, the Wilderness School in East Hartland, Riverview Hospital and the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.
DCF has an $850 million budget and more than 3,500 employees overseeing the welfare and mental health of 36,000 children and 16,000 families at any given time.
As she introduced herself to the public, to the legislature, and to staff at DCF and its partners, the new commissioner was called smart, tough and fair; hard charging and opinionated; and a new start.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who appointed her to this new challenge, has called Commissioner Katz “tough enough to manage what has been, at times, an unwieldy bureaucracy that is too insular, and has too often failed to protect our children.”
What was your own childhood like? Smart little kid? Only child? Where did you live?
I was the third daughter, a late-in-life child, so I think quite frankly by the time my parents got to me, I was a handful. I had my own opinions. I expressed them regularly. I thought I should live in a democratic household. I had something to say about everything.
My mother turned to me one day and said, “You need to go to law school because you have this big mouth and you have to put it to some good use.”
You grew up in Brooklyn but in a nice neighborhood. Was your family what we now call “privileged?”
Yes. My father was a corset manufacturer, a bra and girdle man. We lived in Crown Heights. My father was the only person in the entire neighborhood who wasn’t a doctor. When Crown Heights started to change, we moved to Flatbush.
My mother looked like Dina Merrill. She was stunning. My father looked like Alfred E. Newman but he married well.
She used to do the windows at Saks. She had real flair. She worked for the longest time at Lord and Taylor. Basically, she was a personal shopper.
The most important thing is, I always knew I was loved. I get emotional when I say that.
Now you have your own happy family and a distinguished husband – Philip Rubin, CEO of Haskins Laboratories.
Yes. It’s going to be 38 years, and [we have] two children, 25 and 27.
Our son, Jason Rubin, is a fourth year medical student. He graduates May 22. He gets married May 29. He has applied for a residency as a pediatrician.
Our daughter, Samantha Katz, is an art director in New York. She is living life large in Soho. She works 24/7 for an international restaurant chain called SushiSamba. She does everything: advertising, marketing, logo, web design, restaurant design.
Has it been hard for your children to grow up in your shadow?
I have friends who said to me that being your child or your husband – my husband is pretty exceptional – it’s going to be a challenge. We never saw it that way. Our kids see us
as their parents: mom and dad.
What is your life like at home?
[My husband and I] are pretty good about making time for each other. You raise children and you are so busy that you worry that one day you will look at each other and say, “Who?”
We go to New York a lot, partly because Samantha is there, but really more because we can. There is the theater, lots of museums, Lincoln Center, jazz.
What about work? It’s a long ride from Fairfield to Hartford. Do you drive yourself?
Yes. I have an old Subaru with 150,000 miles on it.
I am out of the house about 7:15, 7:30. I stop for coffee along the way, so I’m here between 8:30 and 9 in the morning, depending on traffic. I leave [work] most nights by 6:30 or 7, and I’m home by 8.
A number of people are believing you can create a miracle for the children of Connecticut. That warm welcome could create an Obama or a Segarra effect: people become so fond of this new leader, they expect he or she will walk on water. When that doesn’t happen, then they say: “You disappointed us.”
Every time something nice is said about me, I say to myself, “I have so much further to fall.”
This enthusiastic coverage is a very good start, even so.
I think there [are many] reasons, little to do with me. It’s a new day. It’s a new administration.
People who were excited about me, don’t know me. But they are getting to know me as I am going around the state, so maybe I’ve earned some of that goodwill. But initially, when people were being so flattering, I think they were just shocked [by the idea that I] would leave the Supreme Court and do this. I think that probably had as much, if not the most, to do with the warm welcome: “Oh my God, she must be serious!” And I am.
Why did you leave the bench to take on this challenge?
I couldn’t think of anything more important. I said, “Okay, I could stay on the Supreme Court and do what I’m doing, and I could write another 250 opinions – those are important cases and I don’t mean to denigrate them – or I could take on something entirely new, incredibly challenging and probably the most significant thing I could do. That’s what really motivated me. This is something I really want to be a part of.
How did the governor find you?
The Permanent Commission on the Status of Women was looking for women they could promote and I looked at some of their e-mails. I could see the next chapter of my life being really devoted to this. Word got out [that I was interested.] The governor asked me to come in and we chatted awhile. And he said, “I want you to do this, but it will be a huge change. I want you to think about this. Take your time. Talk to your family.” And that’s what I did.
It seems many of the failures that are so heavily publicized are not of commission but of omission. The DCF is blamed for what it didn’t do. Do you have enough caseworkers for the caseload?
Yes. We do. [But] you don’t hear about the good stuff. I am so heartened by the work I have seen. I spoke at a conference recently where lawyers who represent children and families said, “We think your workers do phenomenal work.” I said, “Good. I am going to call on you at the appropriate time to make that statement publicly.”
That doesn’t mean there is not room for improvement. We have systemic problems and
we need to solve them.
It’s a huge agency.
Yes – 3,500 employees, give or take. I am trying to get my head around it and all we do. In the last 10 years, we have done so much in mental and behavioral health. But if the public doesn’t know about it…
And they don’t.
I need to educate the public as I educate myself. We are doing phenomenal work. [However,] when it comes to these kids, good isn’t good enough. It’s not just looking at our checklist and saying, “Okay, we gave you school, and we gave you a roof over your head.” It’s got to be a better assessment of what that child needs and what the family needs.
If I had to rename DCF, it would be the Department of Children, Families and Commun-ities. These kids belong with their families, and their families belong to their communities. It’s got to be a more
Steve Adamowski, Hartford’s retiring superintendent of schools, said the city’s 200 community
agencies need to step up and provide social services so the school system can concentrate its resources “on the core business of instruction.” With that many community agencies, is there
an oversight or an overlap?
My administration has to be about talking to each other within the agency, talking better to our
partners and talking better to state agencies that are dealing with our same population.
I met with another state agency recently. One of the women was talking about the work they are doing. I said, “Those are my children, those are my families.” We laughed, but it’s true. We are duplicating efforts and we are not sharing information.
How can you fix that?
The duplication is nuts. That’s part of what I’m trying to [remedy]. We had these silos [within the agency]. A case was either a child welfare issue, a behavioral health issue, a prevention issue, or a juvenile delinquency issue.
I came in and I said, “When you are dealing with these children and these families, there is never just one issue. Whether it starts with a drug issue, a violence issue or a mental health issue, it doesn’t stay confined to that. I’m tearing down those silos.
Is there enough help going out to the families of these children?
It’s not about the numbers; it’s about the approach. There has to be a lot more family engagement. There have to be differential responses. Obviously, you have cases where there is high risk and you’ve got to get in there and treat it a little more aggressively. But if it’s a case where there is what we would call minimal risk, there are ways of approaching that family.
Instead of a forensic investigation, it can be much more friendly: “What do you need? What can we bring to you? How can we make your situation better? How can we help you with this child?” It has
to be a kinder, gentler approach to a lot of our families – an almost voluntary engagement.
Some children are so afraid of being separated from their family that they won’t tell on their abusive parents.
That just shows you the [family] bond. It used to be that everything was all about safety, and some children obviously have to be removed. But it is [also] about well-being. We used to think, “Do no harm.” What we understand now is that even when we have to remove a child, we are doing harm. That’s why we need to understand there is that connection, and do what can we to facilitate that child’s re-entry into that family.
What do you see for the future?
We are always going to have an agency. I hope we will be able to shrink it [through success].
We need to embrace programs for early intervention, to have preschool available for all children. The problem is, we have kids who by statute don’t have to go to school until the age of seven. By the age of seven, my own children had been in day care, preschool and all sorts of wonderful programs so they could compete.
What would you consider success, for you, here?
Success is having healthier and happier children in their homes with their families. I would love every child to have the upbringing I had. I would love every child to be part of a family with what he or she needs, with services provided for that family, with an education that will allow them, at whatever level they are capable of, to be able to have fruitful and productive lives and then go back into their communities and to perpetuate the good stuff, instead of the bad stuff. What we see now is generations of the bad stuff.
And how can we make that happen?
We were talking about bringing services to families rather than coming in and taking their children. It’s a lot cheaper to help somebody pay their electric bill than it is to take the five kids living in that home and find foster homes for them. It’s not about the money. It’s about getting very early childhood interaction, embracing programs that put our dollars in prevention. Every dollar you spend on that [helps keep kids] from getting into the system. Any child [in state care], even the success stories, pays a price. We all do.
How can people help?
What I would say to your readers is, “Get involved. Be part of your communities. Everybody can do something. Every town has an agency that can connect you so you can mentor a child. The children I mentor are in a foster family. I get more from them than they get from me. Not everyone can step up and adopt a child. Not everyone should be a foster parent. But everyone can do something. If you can’t give time, there is money. I would love everybody to be engaged in whatever way they possibly can. These are our children, and this is their future. HM
Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline