On the night of Wednesday Mar. 6, the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, as part of the Open VISIONS Forum, hosted speaker Joette Katz to engage in a conversation entitled “Listening to the Kids: Challenges for Youth in Connecticut.” Katz, a former Connecticut Supreme Court Justice, recently retired from her position as commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families. Accompanying Katz on the panel this evening were Dr. Margarita Munoz, MD, the Psychiatric Medical Director of the REACH program at Bridgeport Hospital, and Dean Robert Hannafin of Fairfield’s GSEAP program.
Justice Katz explained that when she first began her term in this position, Connecticut’s child services were seen as lacking by the public. Katz highlighted the decrease in institutionalized children over her term. Katz decreased the number of children sent to institutions when left without parents from 33 percent to 7.8 percent. Additionally, Katz noted how this significant decrease in reliance on institutions allowed for 90 million dollars to be saved, with the majority of this money being recycled into community investment.
Katz also sent 46 percent of children who were removed from their homes to other family members, drastically improving this number from the 14 percent when she entered office. Katz emphasized how when a child has to leave their own home setting, much of the subsequent trauma results from where they get placed next.
This night provided rare insights from the perspective of the commissioner of the DCF. Katz’s eight year term lasted four times longer than the two year term of most commissioners.
Katz cited her loyalty exemplified through publicly defending her employees proved to be an effective strategy to gaining their confidence and trust. Katz and her department developed new methods of approaching children and families in need, making relevant services available. Katz also expressed how she made a point to make systematic changes regarding her department’s approach to race. “We have a huge problem around race,” stated Katz. Therefore, before she left office, Katz had officially added racial justice as a part of her agency’s mission.
Other issues discussed by the panel included mental health, substance abuse and the justice system. The issue of mental health, which the panelists acknowledged still possesses a very toxic stigma, lies at the root of much of the problems which cause these children to end up leaving their homes. Regardless the issue, the emphasis on helping children, families, and adults with whatever issue mental illness or traumatic experience plagues their life emerged as the night’s common theme. On this night, the conversation concluded with a firm emphasis having been made on supporting and embracing those children, families, and other people suffering through any of the discussed hardships.