Public Official of the Year: Joette Katz
Commissioner, Department of Children and Families, State of Connecticut
It’s probably the toughest job in government, with one of the highest burnout rates. That alone would make Katz’s decision to leave her job as a Connecticut Supreme Court Justice to become commissioner of the Department of Children and Families remarkable. But it is her record of accomplishments since taking the job in 2011 that’s most impressive.
When Katz started, the department had already been operating under a federal consent decree that was put in place in 1991. To get it lifted, her overall approach has been to focus on clinically proven strategies for helping children and families, which has been a “welcome and noteworthy development,” says Jamey Bell, executive director of Connecticut Voices for Children. “She pays attention to the years of accumulated data and then tries to shape policy based on those parameters.”
In that regard, one of her signal achievements has been to get Connecticut kids out of clinically questionable congregate care settings (group homes) and back into less restrictive settings. In four years, she’s cut the number of kids in institutional care by more than 70 percent. “We’ve monitored the ones who we removed and they’re doing fine,” says Katz.
Getting out from under the consent decree has dovetailed nicely with all the work that Katz wants to do. The state is now in full compliance with one-third of the goals outlined in the decree and another third are in sight.
In particular, she sees an improved relationship with the federal monitor as a signature achievement for the agency. “For the longest time the monitor was viewed as the enemy,” says Katz. “But you don’t shoot the messenger; we were flunking the test. So now we’re working closely with him and making progress.”
Bell says it is that ability to reach out to other interests that has been an especially refreshing hallmark of Katz’s tenure. “She elicits outside input from people in the field -- providers, advocates and, most significantly, families of impacted children. She has shifted the focus from, ‘You’re a bad parent and we have to take your kids away,’ to ‘What can we do to support you in a way that we can help you keep this family together?’”
By Jonathan Walters