Sometime on Tuesday, June 24, a 16-year-old transgender girl in DCF care finally left the adult women’s prison where she’d been kept for close to two months. “Jane Doe” has never been charged with a crime, and her detention provoked a national uproar. But her release isn’t nearly the end of the troubled agency’s woes.
Earlier in the month the Office of the Child Advocate released a statement saying they would be investigating nine of the 11 deaths of children under DCF care. DCF later said that six of those deaths, all of which have occurred since the beginning of 2014, involve allegations of maltreatment.
What is going on at DCF?
Frustratingly, that’s not always easy to know. The Office of the Child Advocate investigates cases of child deaths, but there are very few that are easily available on their website. A report about 2013 deaths is forthcoming, but it may be a while before we know anything else about what’s happened this year.
The Jane Doe situation is unique in that it actually showed up on our radar. But there’s still pieces of her story that remain unresolved. In her affidavit, she alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by a staff member at Connecticut Children’s Place and by a staff member at a private Massachusetts facility where she had been placed by DCF.
Unfortunately, a lot of this isn’t totally surprising, given the agency’s troubled history and funding woes. DCF has been operating under court supervision since a 1989 class-action lawsuit alleging their predecessor agency was broadly failing to protect children in the state. The agency has struggled to stay within compliance, and has managed to meet some benchmarks for release from court supervision while missing others.
To make matters worse, DCF has suffered worsening staffing levels; a report from the agency’s court monitor in January 2014 found that the number of DCF front-line caseload-carrying social workers dropped by a shocking 29 percent since 2011.
And yet DCF found the funds to build and open a new locked treatment facility for girls in Middletown. This facility, the Pueblo Unit, is where Jane Doe is residing temporarily before being moved to a more permanent placement in Massachusetts. Pueblo was built because DCF had run out of space in Journey House, the other locked facility for girls.
The reason they ran out of space at Journey House, however, was in part because girls were not being cycled out of there quickly enough. Other options and placements for them were simply not available; budget cuts meant the loss of facilities and services across the state.
In Jane Doe’s case, the agency flailed around trying to find some sort of appropriate placement for her, even considering housing her in boys’ facilities despite having respected her gender identity up until that point, before deciding to send her to York. It’s telling that she is being sent out of state from here.
All of this paints a picture of an agency that does not have the resources to do what it needs to do.
The agency and the legislature need to answer some tough questions. First, are the problems at DCF merely the result of being strapped for cash? Or are Commissioner Joette Katz’s priorities, which advocates claim are trending toward more incarceration instead of treatment, the wrong ones?
Second, how far will we go in this state to protect the most vulnerable? How could this latest rash of child deaths have been prevented? Are we willing to accept more Jane Does suffering through systems that can’t figure out what to do with them?
What are we really willing to do to keep children safe?
The answers so far are not encouraging. It seems that we’re willing to risk the safety and well-being of children, to the point of throwing our hands up and putting them in adult prisons, instead of spending the money we need to spend and demanding accountability. We must do better.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.