Joette Katz has made many important changes that have improved the lives of an untold number of at-risk children during nearly seven years as commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.
But the February death of 17-year-old Matthew Tirado shows that she has not been able to solve persistent and chronic problems within the agency.
The DCF needs someone, right now, to address those issues. If Ms. Katz isn't the best person to do that, she should step aside and cede leadership to someone who can.
A recent report from an advocate for children makes it clear that Matthew Tirado might have been saved, had the DCF done its job. His mother, Katiria Tirado, is in prison now, charged with essentially starving him to death.
The Department of Children and Families failed Matthew, most critically by closing his case just weeks before he died and essentially washing its hands of a responsibility that it should have embraced. The mismanagement of the Tirado case is the latest example of extensive dysfunction with the agency that Ms. Katz has not cured.
She has made many important improvements at the agency since she left the Supreme Court bench for the job in 2011. Twice as many children who need continued care are being placed with relatives, for example, and the use of institutional settings has sharply decreased. Those changes should persist, no matter who is at the helm.
We acknowledge that changing leadership at the DCF and installing a caretaker to usher the agency through the last year of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration would have its downsides, but the agency needs someone who can solve its problems.
Matthew Tirado's case is among the saddest to come out of DCF. The young man, who was diagnosed with autism at 2, was forced to rummage through the trash for food because his mother allegedly locked the cabinets and refrigerator. Court documents describe Matthew eating cooking oil, ketchup and syrup. When he died on Feb. 14, he weighed 84 pounds. His ribs had been broken. He had cuts and bruises and bed sores.
There were clear warning signs that something was seriously wrong in the Tirado home.
State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan's investigation found that Matthew had been kept out of school for months before his death. Although the DCF knew that Matthew had been the victim of abuse and neglect, he went unseen for almost a year before he died, and case workers could not see how desperate his condition was becoming. Katiria Tirado had refused to allow anyone access to the young man — an obstacle to DCF, to be sure, but an obstacle that should have been broken through.
Also, Hartford Public Schools sent DCF five neglect reports within 18 months. That alone should have been enough to inspire a stronger response, Ms. Eagan told The Courant.
But there was more. In October 2014, Matthew's younger sister told Hartford school officials that Matthew had been hit at home. The school forwarded that information to DCF, but the case worker didn't learn about it.
Also, Katiria Tirado "had her own extensive history with DCF as a child due to Matthew's grandmother's persistent struggles with alcoholism, educational neglect, and mental health challenges," the report states.
The case worker was unaware of that detail, as well. It's reasonable to expect the DCF might have been more attentive to Matthew's welfare if it had a better understanding of Matthew's world.
Ms. Katz said the agency's computer system needs to be updated to make it easier for case workers to access such information. But that raises the obvious question: Why has this glaring problem been allowed to go unfixed for so long?
Had those problems been addressed long ago, the whole trajectory of Matthew's treatment could have been different.
Final Steps, Not Taken
A new supervisor had been assigned to the case in April 2016, but "as time wore on without hearing from Ms. Tirado or seeing the children, ... DCF determined that more must be done," the report states. That was a glimmer of hope for Matthew, but, sadly, nothing came of it.
Late in 2016, the agency appeared to recommit to Matthew's case. The supervisor ordered Matthew's case worker to continue making visitation attempts until "the children are found"; to contact the schools for updates; to contact the landlord to determine if the family still lived in its Park Street residence; to track down Katiria Tirado's car; to visit the family with police; and to search for other family members.
Those critical moves — overdue as they were — could have prevented this tragedy, had the case worker done what he was told. But, according to the child advocate's report, there is no documentation that the case worker took any of those steps. That is shocking.
And while those orders were waiting to be met, DCF's spirit appears to have sagged. A marshal tried to serve Katiria Tirado personally with a summons, to no avail. Katiria refused to appear at multiple court hearings.
Then, in December 2016, DCF decided to close the case, effectively throwing up its hands and saying, "What more can we do?"
Exactly the right question, but "give up" was absolutely the wrong answer. Two months later, Matthew was dead.
The agency could have recommended that Matthew and his sister be committed to DCF. The agency's lawyers could have been more engaged in the process to ensure that every possible remedy had been explored. Caseworkers and staffers could have had better legal training. And the case worker could have followed up on the list of things he was ordered to do.
Most importantly, the agency should have confirmed that the children were OK before walking away from the case. It did not.
The list of "could haves" goes on and on, and the child advocate's report is a thorough indictment of a system that lacks critical protections for society's most vulnerable.
The Wrong Response
Joette Katz told The Courant that the agency was ignorant of the depth of Matthew's plight and had no authority to force its way into his residence.
The agency's ignorance was of its own making. A more concerted effort to see Matthew and his sister — a visit with police, for example, as the case worker's supervisor ordered — could have done the job. DCF simply didn't exhaust the available options before closing the case. That's a clear dereliction of duty.
Ms. Katz told The Courant's Josh Kovner: "There are a lot of systemic issues; it's not just DCF. … The legislature has tied our hands."
That's passing the buck, and it's inexcusable. Yes, as the report points out, the agency lacks "clear and unambiguous authority" to meet with a child over a parent's objections. It should have that authority in cases like Matthew's, so more children don't die — and the commissioner should lead the charge to make it happen.
Communication problems within the agency are years old. They should have been addressed long ago.
New Direction Needed
Ironically, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reported Wednesday morning a plan to get DCF out from under federal oversight more quickly.
"DCF has made significant improvements under this administration, including a 9.3 percent reduction in the number of children in care, a doubling of the use of relatives and kin to provide family homes for children who must remain in care, a two-thirds reduction in the use of congregate or institutional settings for children in care, and the virtual elimination of the use of out of state placements," he wrote.
All excellent steps. Those changes — brought about during Ms. Katz's tenure — will persist in the agency's DNA. Without new direction in the agency, though, the vast internal problems laid bare by the child advocate's report in the Tirado case will persist as well.
The agency desperately needs a commissioner who will tackle those problems, fight for legal changes and create a culture within DCF that encourages workers to go the extra mile to protect these most vulnerable children with disabilities.
The child advocate's report says there are 160 students in Hartford public schools who are chronically absent and have intellectual disabilities or autism spectrum disorders — not unlike Matthew Tirado. If the DCF can't get its own house in order, another Matthew Tirado case is unavoidable.
Ms. Katz has done the work she set out to do. Now the agency needs someone to solve the crippling internal problems that she doesn't have the tools to fix.