“Jane Doe” is a young trans woman whose story seems to be never-ending.
Last month, the Department of Children and Families moved the horrifically abused 16-year-old from adult prison to a locked facility for delinquent girls. After three weeks in that girls’ prison, Jane was allegedly involved in an assault. The state’s response was to send her to the juvenile prison for boys, Connecticut Juvenile Training School. Information released by the Office of the Child Advocate shows that four girls were accused of assault on a DCF employee in the incident, a detail omitted from DCF’s press release that makes us question the unique penalty Jane is now paying.
Myriad things are wrong with this picture. I have space to focus on one: The pathetic outcomes that arise from juvenile incarceration, particularly for children with trauma histories.
In all the time that she’s been in the public eye, Jane has been incarcerated, in a women’s, girls’ and once again a boys’ prison. For kids especially, prison is a setting that often does more harm than good.
Children under lock and key frequently act out. When they do, we don’t lose hope in incarceration but in the kids themselves. “She’s incorrigible,” we say. “We must continue to incarcerate her.” We determine to keep administering the poison until the patient improves.
Meanwhile, several states are pioneering programs that safely keep even extremely high-need/risk children in their communities with a robust continuum of services.These programs hold kids accountable without resorting to jail cells.The result is better outcomes for youth and communities, at lower costs.
Unfortunately, Connecticut’s juvenile justice system is full of Jane Does, and John Does, kids with complex, often traumatic, histories who have been criminalized. In Connecticut, 53 percent of children in detention screen positive for post-traumatic stress disorder. Half of the girls committed delinquent are first committed to state care for abuse or neglect. In 2012, DCF arrested 450 young people out of its own placements. The story of a child experiencing trauma, neglect and abuse, not getting the services, supports or help she needs and eventually getting arrested is not exceptional. Sadly, it is common.
Determining how to serve youth who’ve experienced trauma before they enter the juvenile justice system is a complex task, a struggle for many states.The thing is: Connecticut can do complex. Raise the Age, which removed most youth from the adult criminal justice system, required tremendously complex, cross-system, integrated changes. But it was accomplished and is almost universally seen as a success.
Less than two years after full implementation of a law saying teenagers should be kept out of adult court except for the most serious, violent cases, Jane Doe was transferred to the adult system while facing no adult charges. The state, instead of investing in more programs and services to help kids succeed on the outside, chose to spend $2.6 million dollars on a new girls’ prison.
We owe our children better than that. The census at CJTS has held steady around 150 for a few months now, higher than it has been for a decade. The addition of 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system does not fully explain the spike in the CJTS census.
Connecticut has made strides reducing the criminalization of youth: changing our approach to runaways and truants, reducing the number of youth who go to pre-trial detention and reducing the number of youth who end up committed delinquent.
Happily, there are fewer kids entering that system. Those few kids who do enter the system, however – like Jane – have complex histories and needs. No one doubts that working with them is challenging.
Even among the most challenging children, however, incarceration should be a rarity. Accountability does not have to be learned in a cell. It rarely is. These youth need our creativity, commitment and compassion. They need us to believe in their potential to change, grow and mature. Almost more importantly, they need us to believe in our ability and responsibility to hold them accountable for their actions in a way that affords them the best possible chance to succeed.
That is the crux of Jane’s story: It is a debate over hope or the lack of it. I’m a big fan of hope.
Abby Anderson is executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.