By Wayne Jebian
Testifying before the General Assembly’s Committee on Children, on which Latino legislators make up one fourth of the committee, state Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joelle Katz testified that minority children are at long last receiving better treatment from the state.
A major item early in the 2013 session has been monitoring the sweeping changes within the Department of Children and Families (DCF), which has a large effect on urban and Latino communities. Before Katz, the agency was suffering from a reputation for heavy handed actions and cultural insensitivity. The commissioner, who stepped down as a state Supreme Court Justice when tapped by Governor Malloy, told the Children’s Committee members during a recent hearing that she empathized with those who took a dim view of the troubled agency.
Before Katz took over the agency two years ago, a common DCF practice was to respond to reports of child abuse or neglect with surprise visits. “When someone rings my doorbell, and I’m worried that DCF is coming and take my children, I don’t answer the door, I’d go to the second floor of my home and look outside to see who’s there,” said Katz “So why would I expect our families to respond any differently?”
Katz ordered that policies be overhauled, and did away with most surprise visits. “The commissioner thought that that was not the kind of respect that we should be showing for families,” said, Gary Kleeblatt, DCF communications director. DCF workers were put
through retraining and told to remind client parents that the department was there to provide assistance, instead of acting like inquisitors. According to Katz, one client was so startled at the kinder, gentler tone that a DCF worker used during a phone call that
she told the worker, “You must be new here.”
Another major change that has been welcomed by Latino families include increasing the number of child placements with members of that child’s extended family “The focus is on trying to keep them together with families because it’s one of our values,” said William Rivera, DCF’s director of multicultural affairs.
In addition, the department has expanded its Spanish-language outreach and translation services. Rivera said, “I just met … in our Milford/New Haven regional office a foster and adoptive parents support group. I was speaking to them about reactive attachment disorder in Spanish, with materials in Spanish. One of the comments was ‘We have been waiting for this for so long, for these types of training, and it’s good to see that the department is making this effort. Some of us are grandparents; some of us are aunts; some of us are uncles, and to hear this in our own language is really a new one for us, and we appreciate that the department is doing this for us.’”
In spite of these improvements, DCF still has its work cut out for it in terms of public perception. Katz said that the percentage of children overall placed with relatives has risen to 24.5 percent (29 percent if non-blood extended family is included) in October 2012, compared to 15.3 percent in January of 2011, but that still leaves the majority of child placements with non-family-members. Katz also said that mandated reporters, nurses and teachers in particular, were still sometimes reluctant to report suspected cases of abuse or neglect for fear of reprisals in the workplace. Katz said that whistleblower protection laws need to be strengthened in order to change this.
However, state Rep. Christina Ayala (D-Bridgeport), who herself is a mandated reporter with a background in teaching, told the commissioner that the changes she has made are making a noticeable difference. ” I have seen a different approach from the workers,” she said. “Now parents are not so tense…that’s wonderful because, unfortunately, there has been a stigma.”
Photo courtesy DCF