In January 2011, Gov. Dannel Malloy came into office with a promise to reinvent how the Department of Children and Families approaches foster care. Five and a half years later, Malloy held a press conference last week to announce those promises have now been realized.
Standing alongside Joette Katz, the DCF commissioner Malloy brought into the office at the beginning of his tenure, Malloy announced that the department now plays a role in the lives of roughly 36,000 children across the state — equivalent to the entire populations of Glastonbury or Torrington. And in addition to the vast numbers of children who pass through DCF’s system, Malloy said, the department has transformed the way it treats children, focusing less on removing them from their families’ custody and more on working with families to create better outcomes.
“We are changing the foster care system — from something that is done to families and instead making it something that we do with families,” Malloy told reporters. “This is about where social workers, supervisors and managers are transforming child-protection work in Connecticut so that we no longer view the family as the problem, but instead, in as many situations as possible, view the family as the solution.”
Katz — a former Connecticut Supreme Court judge who took over a then-beleaguered DCF in 2011 — said the transformation of the department began in March 2012, when she mandated a policy of “considered removal meetings” before removing children from the household.
Those meetings, she said, are wide-ranging; after reports of trouble in the household, the department encourages the family to bring in an entire support network to help the family and the department figure out how to proceed. The broader strategy involves the use of “kinship homes” — instead of removing a child and placing him or her in the traditional foster system, the department focuses on placing children with a member of their extended family or a trusted friend.
The changes are undeniable. In 2011, only one in five youths in the foster system lived in kinship homes. Now, two in five youths in the foster system live in kinship homes, and the use of considered removal meetings — which are held about 80 percent of the time before removal — has meant that far fewer children are removed from their original households in the first place.
“Historically, we thought — we didn’t turn to families, for a whole variety of reasons,” Katz said. “We tended not to engage them, and we assumed that we had to remove children from families, that somehow we couldn’t enlist them, engage families and rely on them. And nothing could be further from the truth.”
Malloy said Katz’s longevity offers part of the explanation for her success in changing DCF — previous department heads, he said, simply had too little time in the job to make an impact.
Katz is indeed something of an aberration among DCF chiefs nationwide. Long regarded as one of the toughest jobs in state government, DCF chiefs tend to have short political lives, staying on board for an average of only 18 months in their positions. Katz has served for more than three times that span.
The department’s success has not come solely in statistical terms; it has had a human effect, too. Malloy and Katz touted that at the press conference in Middletown, where they introduced a woman named Kathy Coale and her nephew, Avery.
Avery is, in many ways, a typical case: He lived in a troubled home and his parents divorced, while he and his brother sunk into a vicious cycle of bad behavior, including drug use and truancy. When Avery’s father, with whom he lived after the divorce, suddenly died, DCF found a place for Avery and his brother with their aunt Kathy. In an earlier era, the DCF might have placed Avery in the foster system.
Coming into his aunt’s home, Avery said, did immeasurable good for him and his brother. Living with his aunt and uncle provided the impetus for him to turn his life around.
“I didn’t really have any ambition to do anything for my life, anywhere to go — I just wanted to be out of the house, away from my mom, whatever,” Avery said. “Now I get As, Bs, I’m doing football, I’m doing work, I’m happy. I actually have goals in life now, which is pretty crazy, because I didn’t have any.”
Avery’s brother was not present at the conference, as he now attends college, but Kathy Coale was tearful as she spoke to reporters.
“Is it tough sometimes? Oh yeah,” she said. “I can’t say enough about how people need to do this. It’s really, really rewarding.”