Joette Katz had the most secure job in state government.

After two decades on the state Supreme Court, where she wrote about 600 decisions, the longtime Fairfield resident could have remained until mandatory retirement in 2023.

But a chance encounter with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at an upstate festival in the days just before his November 2010 election as governor changed her life and is transforming the way Connecticut treats thousands of troubled children.

After a lifetime in law, Katz left the quiet realm of court arguments and judicial research to become commissioner of the perennially controversial state Department of Children and Families.

"I wanted a challenge," Katz said recently in her 10th-floor office with a stunning view of downtown Hartford.

"I was 57 and I thought I could do what I'm doing for the next 13 years and then you become constitutionally senile at 70 and get thrown off the Supreme Court, or I could look for something entirely different.

"The opportunity presented itself and I thought this would be great. I still have the energy and the work ethic. So I figured do it now before I really become senile, constitutionally or otherwise."

Katz has cut the DCF budget, reduced its case load to the lowest in 15 years and brought many kids home from out of state, all while trying to untangle a long-standing federal court decree and navigate the unions representing the department's 3,200-plus employees.

She has developed a reputation as a focused, no-nonsense visionary whose goal is to make life better for the state's at-risk kids. The leader of the union representing DCF employees calls Katz the best agency head in at least 20 years, noting that she has a rare ability to connect with workers, listen and even change her mind.

But Katz, now 60, also has her detractors. Among them are longtime social service providers, many of whom call her imperious, and question whether the goal of keeping children with family members will have long-term, positive results.

Criticism is probably to be expected, given all the changes she has implemented.

A new focus

Katz has pushed staff to accept new programs that have worked elsewhere, including asking families and friends, and even their doctors and lawyers to help determine the best programming for children. She has put a stop to unannounced home visits by agency social workers that were putting at-risk parents and guardians on the defensive.

She has changed the way the agency assesses whether alleged child victims are safe, no longer investigating lower-risk families for abuse or neglect. Indeed, she has questioned whether an intense focus on safety is in a child's best interest.

For years, front-line workers who are familiar faces in the urban neighborhoods of Stamford, Danbury and Bridgeport were taught to remove children from unsafe environments.

"For workers who really have been trained in a way to abandon the discretion they were initially taught to exercise in favor of a `safety, safety, safety, safety' was challenging," Katz said. "But there's so much more than safety at stake. I think we've made a lot of progress in changing the culture."

The theory is that it's better to keep abused and neglected children with family or friends, if not their parents, than placing them in congregate settings and foster care, both in and out of state. And along the way, state case loads can be reduced.

Katz discounts criticism, praises department staff for adapting to new goals and says that the only thing that really matters is improving the lives of the 4,000 kids for whom DCF is responsible. That's down from 4,800 under former Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

New governor meets veteran judge

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born former public defender and state Superior Court judge decided that after years of occasionally ruling on the department's problems, it was time to change careers and accepted what may be the toughest job in state government. Katz retired from the Supreme Court, with a $120,000 annual pension, and took the $154,000 DCF job.

Asked recently what he did to lure Katz away from the $162,500 Supreme Court post, Malloy said that it wasn't anything she said in particular.

"It was a gut feeling that I could do it," Malloy said in his Capitol office. "I had run into her, during the closing weeks of the campaign, and I remember exactly: It was the pumpkin festival in Putnam. Something told me that she might be ready for a change in scenery. She didn't say anything. It was a gut. So a day or so after the dust had settled, I called her and discussions began and she was in fact ready for a change. And she's been really into reinventing a department that needed to be reinvented."

Malloy said the DCF had over the years failed to follow the best practices from states that have handled child-abuse issues with better success.

"In fact, Connecticut failed to do that in a lot of areas and this is just one of the areas," Malloy said. "There is no doubt in my mind that children, if they have to be placed, are better off if they're placed in-state. And if they have to be placed, then more often than not they're in better shape if they're placed with a family member. Keeping a family identification is extremely important for the child."

Around Thanksgiving 2010, three weeks after Malloy's narrow victory over Republican Tom Foley, the Democratic governor-elect asked her to take the DCF job.

"What really persuaded me to take this job, frankly, was him," Katz said of Malloy. "He didn't do any hard sell, but you know what? I liked the way he would govern. His attitude is that he puts the people that he wants in the job then gets out of the way."

Flashing an ability to multi-task, Katz, who is married and has two grown children, dove into DCF issues during the court's eight-day Christmas break. Then, the former honors graduate in college and law school, with a reputation as a brilliant, driven jurist, delivered 19 court decisions on Jan. 5, before starting her new job the next day.

Toughest job in state government

"Ignorance is bliss," she said with a smile during an hourlong interview. "You think you have an idea, then you get here and then you realize it's like anything else."

Even knowing the legal side of DCF-related issues was of limited help, she said.

"There was no way that I really understood the whole scope of the agency, frankly, and it's just as well," Katz said. "The court sort of sees society's problems as they percolate to the top. But you can't really have a complete understanding, particularly of an agency this size, and I think the biggest challenge for me, I'll tell you, is the state bureaucracy. It's really from getting from A-Z and getting there in my lifetime. As a judge, I was isolated from that."

She told employees that she brought a fresh perspective and she wasn't afraid to make decisions.

"If you wait for perfection, you'll never do anything," she said. "We're going to move certain things, and we'll tweak as we move along. I made a four-year commitment. We have a certain window here. We have a very supportive governor; we're going to work with the Legislature. We have the worst statistics in the country on engaging with families in terms of foster care. We have way too many kids in congregate care; we have way too many kids out of state, and this is my agenda."

And when a child under DCF supervision died, high-ranking state officials would line up to blame DCF workers.

In June 2011, just days after contact with DCF officials, 5-month-old Kyle Robinson, of Ansonia, was allegedly shaken by his mother's boyfriend and died in Griffin Hospital in Derby.

Rather than point the blame at individual DCF employees, Katz accepted responsibility.

"As long as you do what you need to do, I don't expect that there are not going to be bad outcomes sometimes," she said. "That's life, getting back to society's problems. What lessons can we learn? Are there other children in the family?"

Working under a consent decree

Paul Lavallee, president of Local 2663, AFSCME Council 4, said last week that Katz earned the respect of union members.

"Change comes hard for everybody," said Lavallee, who has been at DCF for more than 20 years. "Past administrations gave us lip service. She's been realistic. She certainly makes up her mind. Most refreshing for me is to have someone to hear us."

While the agency has seen its $885 million budget reduced by $75 million since 2010, staff reductions have come through attrition.

Social-service agencies with state contracts are more critical of Katz.

Ron Cretaro, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Non-Profits, recently sent Katz a letter asking for performance measures for the shift of kids into family settings, success in school; clinical and mental health treatment and other qualitative measures.

DCF is saving money and making strides toward meeting the elusive goals of the 1991 federal class-action court case that charged the agency with too often removing children from their homes, but Cretaro said the savings may be at the expense of local non-profit providers.

"Putting kids in less-restrictive environments might be saving money for the state, which is bending over backwards to try to get out of the consent decree. But its relationships with providers is resulting in less funding," Cretaro said.

Some other social-service providers, who asked to not be identified out of concern that it might affect their relationship with DCF, said Katz rules through intimidation.

Katz admits to caring more about results than the feelings of social service providers.

She said data on outcomes is crucial.

"We are following all the kids we brought back from out of state," Katz said. "We work with providers. We work with a monitor and in fact most of those kids are doing better."

A recent quarterly report by Ronald Mancuso, the federal court-appointed department monitor based in Wallingford, notes DCF improvements. The report cites many children brought back from out-of-state placements, children under six no longer being warehoused, and the family-focused agenda.

On the negative side, the report notes a shortage of potential foster homes, there are still many children awaiting placement in group homes, and there is a shortage of DCF staff.

"We have a huge problem with older age kids who have not achieved permanency, and that's another one of my targets," Katz admitted. "These are kids who have been in care too long and were brought into the agency under past administrations. Yeah, they were safe, but they've grown up, many of them in foster homes, but many of them in congregate settings."

Katz is planning a statewide expansion of a program called considered removal, in which 500 cases were recently followed.

Parents, guardians, relatives, religious advisers and others were brought in for consultation with DCF workers. In about 350 cases, children were not removed from their homes, while half of the remaining 150 were placed with relatives.

"I tell everybody that I want kids having breakfast with the same person who put them to bed the night before," Katz said. "I want them with a family. Kids do better when they're with relatives. There's less trauma. And all of these things save money. It's better for the kids and better for the taxpayers. That's how we've generated the savings."