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New DCF Leader Katz: Get Troubled Kids Back Home

Goals: Stop Flow Out Of State, Boost Family Services

By Josh Kovner

August 07, 2011

The state Department of Children and Families, long under pressure to improve its treatment system for young people, announced last week that it wants to get many of the 1,400 children now in residential facilities back to their families or into foster care.

Commissioner Joette Katz said the effort, which includes stopping the flow of troubled children to out-of-state facilities and developing in-home and neighborhood-based services, will cause some pain during the transition and require a radical shift in the way the agency has operated in the past 20 years.

For example, she said, some counseling services, psychiatric treatment and other programs now at residential centers would be moved to in-home settings, or to walk-in family clinics. DCF also might have foster families, instead of private agencies, run group homes with five or six children - at a third of the current rate of $500 a day per child.

Of the 1,400 children in institutional settings, 200 are 12 years old or younger. Katz issued a directive last month saying that children in that age range will no longer be sent to residential centers. She said the goal is to have the 200 children out of those institutions and in foster care or back at home by early next year. Counseling, training and a range of other support services - crucial to the success of the transition away from residential care - would be provided to the families.

Of the remaining 1,200 teenagers in residential care, some are nearing 18, the age at which they will leave the centers and go into other programs, or leave DCF care.

"That leaves a core of 700 or 800 kids in residential care, half in state, half out of state, that we need to address. That's challenging," Katz said.

She said parents, children, social workers, juvenile-court judges, treatment providers and DCF all have to cooperate for this cultural sea change to stick.

"It's going to take a lot more than me at the table," said Katz. "We're working with treatment providers. They've acknowledged we're paying a lot of money and not always getting all we need from them."

As for DCF, it must improve support services to foster families dramatically, and recruit many more families, including relatives of the children, to serve as foster parents, Katz said.

She acknowledged that, in a few cases, the children themselves have experienced the pain of this transitional period. She said that when she recently blocked the out-of-state placement of 15-year-old Jeffrey M., a youth with no prior criminal record who was charged as an accomplice in an unarmed robbery attempt, she found herself "between a rock and a hard place."

Her action meant that the youth has spent weeks in detention while the state Appellate Court hears Katz's argument that only the DCF commissioner, not Superior Court judges, has the authority to send troubled children out of state.

Katz, the former state Supreme Court justice who took over at DCF in January, said a ruling affirming the commissioner's authority is key to the agency's efforts to keep troubled kids closer to home and cultivate an effective treatment network in Connecticut.

"I'm pretty confident in the legal determination that I've made," Katz said in an interview Thursday. "I hope the Appellate Court agrees and the juvenile-court judges will take notice. Then we can stopping wasting time."

She stressed that she's considering requests for out-of-state placements on a case-by-case basis. Of the last 17 requests to send children to outside facilities, Katz has rejected eight and approved nine - the latter after confirming that there was no adequate place for those children in Connecticut.

But for some parents, lawyers and other advocates, Katz is moving too fast, blocking outside placements before the in-state system is ready.

Michael and Patty Alquist of West Hartford, whose child's placement at a facility for autistic children in Framingham, Mass., was blocked last week by DCF, say they wonder what goes into Katz's decisions.

DCF has said that their son should go instead to the Children's Home of Cromwell, which, under director Garrell Mullaney has begun programs to treat children in the autism spectrum. Experts at the University of Massachusetts are developing the program for the Children's Home and training the staff.

The Alquist family qualifies for state services because the boy's issues - he can be highly aggressive when he is agitated - are overwhelming. The family wants their son to go to the New England Center for Children, which established its school for autistic children in 1975. The child has been living at home, with services provided to the Alquists.

Patty Alquist said she had serious concerns about the Children's Home when she and her husband visited, including that children with criminal histories or psychiatric problems mingled in the cafeteria and hallways with the autistic children. She said she was also dismayed by the physical condition of some of the buildings, and thought the therapeutic program had gaps and shortcomings.

"I love him. I want him to be in state," Patty Alquist said. "I understand what DCF is trying to do. But our son is a complex kid. He's the exception. He needs to go out of state."

Katz said DCF is working closely with the Children's Home to develop a top-tier program.

Jeffrey M.'s lawyer, Aaron Romano of Bloomfield, said Katz's action unraveled a court-approved arrangement to send the youth to the Glen Mills school in Pennsylvania, where 11 other Connecticut children already live, with the most recent placement coming in June.

The judge in the case, William Wollenberg, commented that after DCF got involved, "the wheels came off." Katz countered that she has to start somewhere to turn around an out-of-state exodus that diverts tens of millions of dollars a year that could be used to bolster Connecticut programs. Children who are sent out of state spend appreciably longer periods at those facilities than they do if they stay in Connecticut, records show.

Romano and associate Naomi Fetterman brought to light the case of another teenager, who they said is languishing at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School - the state's juvenile jail - after DCF blocked his transfer to an Iowa program. The youth needs sex-offender treatment and Connecticut doesn't have an established program, Romano said.

Katz said DCF is now sending a therapist into the training school to provide extra treatment to the youth - an arrangement that could continue when the youth goes home or into foster care.

Romano said the amount of weekly therapy is inadequate.

"The legislature wants these kids home," Katz said. "Am I going fast? Am I drawing a line in the sand? I'm doing what legislators and advocates have asked of me and have historically asked of DCF."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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