One of the buildings at the former Riverview Hospital in Middletown. Part of the campus will be used for a new, 12-bed locked treatment facility for at-risk girls. (CASSANDRA DAY / MIDDLETOWN PRESS / 21ST CENTURY DIGITAL)

On March 19, the Department of Children and Families will be opening a 12-bed, locked treatment facility in Middletown for some of the most at-risk girls in the system. Questions remain, however, as to whether it’s a needed addition to the state’s treatment network, or just a symptom of a broken system.

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz appeared on WNPR’s “Where We Live” on Monday, March 10, to defend the new facility. She described the small population of girls that the facility would serve as being traumatized, “extremely assaultive,” and prone to running away. The locks are intended to keep them in one place long enough for treatment to actually work.

Katz said the additional beds are needed because the only other locked facility for girls, Journey House in Mansfield, has a waiting list. Several girls who DCF believes require this kind of setting, or who can’t be safely or reliably housed in other state facilities, will now have a slot. That does seem like a pressing need.

But is it? Martha Stone, Executive Director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, sees a more systemic problem. For one thing, stays at Journey House are far too long. “I would say it’s gridlock at Journey House,” Stone said. The average stay there in 2013 was 292.7 days, or nearly three months past what Stone says is effective.

Stone and other advocates wonder why, instead of spending money on this new facility, the state isn’t sinking the money into community-based programs such as multidimensional foster care, which works with both girls and their families, in order to give girls a way to transition beyond Journey House more quickly. Quite the opposite: in recent years several other facilities have closed.

Locking kids into treatment centers is less and less favored by juvenile justice advocates. Dr. Angela Irvine of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency testified before a legislative committee saying that locking up girls who have experienced sexual and physical abuse re-traumatizes them.

Stone agreed: “It’s the worst thing to do for a kid who’s been traumatized.”

Despite the risk, there’s precious little data on whether these locked facilities are actually effective. DCF doesn’t track recidivism, for instance.

Rep. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, is troubled by this lack of evidence. “I wonder where the analysis has been . . . to see if we really need a second locked facility in this state,” Lesser said. “It doesn’t look as if DCF has done the analysis and that’s concerning . . . There is no data, there’s been no comprehensive analysis. The facility was constructed without any oversight.”

Sarah Eagan, the governor’s nominee to serve as the state’s next Child Advocate, also has many questions about the new facility. “What is the quality assurance plan for this facility?” Eagan asked. “Is there an RBA [risk-benefit analysis] informed operations plan for the facility already, and if not, when will it be in place? Who is in charge of it, and what data will it report?”

And, perhaps most importantly, Eagan asked, “How are clinical outcomes measured post-discharge? How do we know if youth are better off?”

None of these questions were answered before the plan went forward. DCF was able to build and staff the facility without legislative approval, which has given legislators and advocates pause.

“I have a lot of confidence in Commissioner Katz,” Lesser said. “But we have a process. And the process was short-circuited.”

So what should be done now? The facility will need funding from the legislature to continue operating. Stone believes that the legislature should cut off funding and invest in community-based treatment instead. Lesser said the legislature is looking into options, and he’s “open to sunsetting” if “this isn’t the facility we need going forward.”

Eagan stressed the need for continuity of care.

“DCF is in a place where it needs both short term and long term solutions,” Eagan said, adding that the long-term solutions include a better continuum of mental health services. “DCF struggles on two fronts — one, it doesn’t have all of the resources it needs to implement that long term vision quickly, and two, it has girls with complex needs right now that are at risk to themselves, or potentially risk to others.”

That’s where this locked facility comes from, in the end. It’s going to open March 19 regardless, so the legislature must ensure that this new facility is both needed and effective. DCF has many, many questions to answer.

But the legislature must also ensure that DCF has the resources it needs to effectively serve all of our children. We owe them nothing less.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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