Health & Human Services

Judicious Reform

Three veteran judges are tacking big reforms at children and family services departments in three states.
by , | December 13, 2011

I wouldn't call it a trend, but whatever it is, it's certainly a positive development: Three states now have former judges running their children and family services departments, and the three veteran jurists are widely considered to be among the most dynamic and effective reformers in their field today.

The three judges are Jim Payne, former Marion County, Ind., family court judge; Maura Corrigan, former Michigan state supreme court judge; and Connecticut's Joette Katz, former state supreme court judge.

I've had the chance to spend a significant amount of time with Judge Jim Payne, who tackled what I would regard as the single most ambitious overhaul of a children and family services system in the country. Payne's view of what needed fixing in regards to the state's system was powerfully influenced by his frustrating experiences dealing with it from the bench.

Michigan's Corrigan is just starting her children and family services journey. She is up against a rough budget and a 2006 lawsuit brought by child welfare advocates in U.S. District Court for failure to protect abused and neglected children.

Connecticut's Katz shares a lot in common with Corrigan and Payne. She's a tough, pragmatic and extremely capable manager who has also taken over a system under federal consent decree, and is saddled by a tightly constrained budget. Her views on reform, like Payne's, have been informed by her years in the legal system, including time as a public defender.

While I have yet to get the chance to talk to Judge Corrigan (a New Year's resolution for 2012), I recently sat down with Katz to talk about challenges, opportunities and progress she's made at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.

Katz says that the toughest initial task is changing the culture of the organization she took over. "This is an agency that has been consumed with safety," says Katz. "I'm not saying we shouldn't care about safety, but you know it's like when you raise your own kids. You can put them in a playpen for 20 years and they're safe, but is that really the way you want to raise your children?"

One of Katz's gutsier initiatives ties directly to the issue of risk. As is the case in way too many other states, there's a propensity among caseworkers to consider congregate care or institutional placement the default placement for kids. "I've said I don't want any child under age 12 in congregate care, period," says Katz, "and I want the number of children above age 12 in congregate care significantly reduced."

Service providers -- as they have in every state where a reformer wants to reduce reliance on expensive and therapeutically questionable institutional care -- are pushing back hard, but that's where having a supportive governor comes in handy. When Katz took the job, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy told her he could promise her two things: There would be no more money, but he would have her back.

On the issue of greater family involvement, Katz has instituted another policy that at least initially was controversial: notifying parents in advance of visits by caseworkers. Katz says the new way of business took some veteran workers some getting used to, and it took some families by surprise, too. "We had one funny thing happen," says Katz. "A worker called a parent to tell her in advance that she'd be visiting and the parent said, 'Are you new?' But most workers are finding that families really respond positively to that."

While Katz has made positive policy progress, most impressive is her success in the 2011 legislative session. She won legislation allowing her to completely reorganize the department to make it flatter and more responsive, including moving more office people into the field where they were actually needed.

She also won legislation allowing for more information and data-sharing among departments in order to smooth the transition for children moving in and out of state custody and between agencies. Another bill overhauled the absolutely mindless approach to school discipline that existed for kids in state custody -- an approach that needlessly and almost punitively cost kids time in the classroom.

Katz says there are two current initiatives in particular that she's focused on: one related to policy, the other administration. On the policy front she plans to focus much more tightly on the needs of adolescents, in particular helping them reconnect with family as those kids get close to aging out of the system.

"So we now have a new program called The Walk Home," says Katz. "Obviously given the gaps and the burned bridges it's not going to work for all kids, but it's human nature for many of them to want to reconnect with family, so we're going to try to help make that happen when we can."

On the administration front, Katz plans to tackle that perennial issue that vexes virtually every children and family services department in the country: data. "We've been an agency that's been great at gathering data and then not doing anything with it," says Katz. "Fortunately, I have some serious data wonks; and now everything is going to be data-driven. It's obviously difficult to get a handle on, but we have to. For one thing, a lot of this relates to money and making sure we're capturing our full federal reimbursement."

Mostly, though, having good numbers is a starting point. "So we went from 190 to 106 kids under age 12 in congregate care. And I'm saying, 'Well that's great, but now where are those kids? Are they okay?' So it's not just about doing numbers for the sake of doing numbers, it's about using that data to ask good questions and to manage. What we're learning is that those kids are fine."

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