The Toughest Job in Government

Even when improving the lives of others, the people running departments of children and families can’t escape controversy.

I've said it before: Running a department of children and families (DCF) is far and away the toughest job in government. It's a high-profile, high-stakes, high-risk job. The folks who step up and actually sign on to run departments are, in my opinion, the gutsiest appointees in state and local government. And recent events have only reinforced my point.

One of my unabashedly favorite DCF directors is Connecticut's Joette Katz, a grizzled veteran at this point having survived all of three and a half years on the job. Katz, who left her job as a state supreme court justice, has led a departmental turnaround that's been nothing short of miraculous. She has effectively reduced the number of children in institutions, increased kinship placements and launched team decision-making as well as differentiated response protocols. All of this has not only improved the department's performance but also helped bring families and communities back to working with DCF as a partner rather than battling it as an adversary.

But that's not what gets headlines or activists' attention. What gets headlines are the tough and sad cases like that of "Jane Doe," a male-to-female transgender teenager with a reported history of being both subjected to serious abuse and evincing a tendency towards serious violence herself. After bouncing around Connecticut's system since she was five, Jane Doe wound up in a Massachusetts residential program where she assaulted a female staffer, "breaking her jaw and temporarily blinding her in one eye." (Supporters of Jane Doe allege that the attack was provoked.)

This appears in our free Human Services e-newsletter. Not already a subscriber? Click here.

The incident led Connecticut DCF to request that the girl be transferred to a more secure correctional facility, which has set off a firestorm of protest from civil libertarians and members of the LGBT community who argue that the real reason for the drastic move is that Jane Doe is transgender. Protesters outside DCF headquarters in Hartford have singled out Katz as the lead culprit in the drama.

This is what it's like to run a state department of children and families. Every day brings new challenges and new crises, often under a searingly hot spotlight. One complicated, difficult case is all it takes to derail, distract and distort.

I'll certainly admit that some DCF directors need to go: Just take Tennessee's Department of Children's Services Director Kate O'Day, who tossed in the towel last year after The Tennessean's excellent series about child fatalities in the Volunteer State. In April, Massachusetts' DCF director Olga Roche resigned after a series of high-profile child fatalities there. Meanwhile, Arizona has a new commissioner by virtue of the fact that Gov. Jan Brewer pulled children and family services out of human services and made it it's own department after a string of child fatalities. And finally, Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins resigned last summer also after a series of high-profile child fatalities.

But the fact that Katz and her whole team at DCF -- front-line to top management -- have been responsible for getting hundreds of kids out of institutions and back into home and community settings doesn't seem to matter here. Fortunately, there are a lot of activists in and around children and family services who understand the reality of trying to care for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of at-risk clients and are inclined to partner with departments of children and families to get a big and difficult job done.

As is being witnessed in Connecticut, it's easy to be an activist. It's much harder to act. If civil libertarians and members of the LGBT community are truly concerned about the fate of Jane Doe, then their course is clear: Instead of marching around the sidewalks of Hartford, they ought to be working to find a clearly troubled youth a loving home where she can feel safe and start healing. If that's the course they ultimately choose, they are also going to find out just how hard working for departments of children and families -- at any level -- really is.

A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.