York Correctional Institution in Niantic (ct.gov)

Connecticut’s second-highest court ruled last week that the state’s Department of Children and Families violated the due process rights of Latina transgender teenager Jane Doe when they transferred her to an adult prison facility in 2014 without charging her with any crime.

“The respondent’s due process rights were violated on the ground that DCF failed to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, its entitlement to have the respondent transferred from its care to the supervision of the Department of Correction,” the ruling states.

The DCF enacted the transfer on the grounds that Jane Doe was too violent for their facilities, but did not provide substantial proof, the appeals court determined.

The ruling sets a higher standard of proof for DCF and other state agencies to meet in order to enact such transfers in the future, raising the standard of evidence from “a fair preponderance” to “clear and convincing.”

DCF has come under intense scrutiny from dozens of civil liberties advocates over its treatment of Doe — who suffered from previous physical and sexual abuse, spent several weeks under solitary confinement in an adult prison setting, and was publicly shamed by DCF for an allegation involving several other youth.

This is, however, the first time any state court has ruled that her rights were violated.

In an appeal, Doe’s attorneys raised three claims that alleged the teenager’s rights were violated: that the current statute regarding the transfer of a minor under the care of DCF is “impermissibly vague,” that Doe’s transfer hearing did not “adequately protect her liberty interests,” and that her guilty plea to a prior delinquency proceeding that resulted in her subsequent transfer was “knowing and voluntary.”

The Appellate Court determined that the first and third claims were unfounded, ruling that “a person of ordinary intelligence” would have understood the current statute and that DCF was not obligated to inform Doe of the full consequences of her plea.

However, the court ruled that the state judge who granted DCF’s transfer request last year did so without holding the department to a high enough standard of proof.

It also ruled that the department should have provided more evidence that it could not safely maintain Doe within their care — a decree DCF denied.

“Beyond question this was a very difficult situation, and we took the step of asking for court approval with great consideration and after attempting many other interventions,” the department said in a statement. “We are confident that we applied our principles appropriately in this instance, and accordingly, are now deciding what is the best appellate approach to take.”

The statement also commented on the scarcity with which such transfer laws have been invoked — only twice in the state in the last 40 years.

“In keeping with this direction, the law in question has been used extremely rarely since it was established decades ago and properly so,” said the department. “We are committed to the principle that youths with behavioral health treatment needs should be served in the community and in the least restrictive setting consistent with safety.”

In any other situation, a ruling that a previous judgment must be reversed would require a new hearing in order to determine the next steps. However, because Jane Doe is no longer in the custody of the Correction Department and will soon be 18 years of age, the court cannot offer its usual services.

“We are unable to provide her with any practical relief from the court’s transfer order,” the ruling states.

Jane Doe’s attorney, James J. Connolly from the Chief Office of the Public Defender, who spoke with his client about the decision before issuing a statement early Monday evening, said that overall he was pleased with the court’s reversal of the judge’s decision, but regretted their inability to provide a remedy for his client’s mistreatment.

“We had anticipated that such a reversal would be based on findings that the statute itself is unconstitutional because it allows for the state to imprison society’s most vulnerable without requiring a criminal conviction,” Connolly said. “It is unfortunate that, as the court recognizes, there is no remedy for the harm experienced during this transfer. Sadly, the detrimental impacts this had on [Doe] are not capable of reversal.”

The detrimental impacts, as well as the actions that caused them, drew national outrage of child welfare and civil rights activists across the country this past year, ultimately leading Doe’s case to be catapulted into the public eye.

“Jane has become the public face of the glaring truth that the system is unable to care for those who are most in need,” one of the many “Justice for Jane” pages states. “From sanctioned DCF abuse to the racist police violence epidemic to the school-to-prison pipeline to the lack of safe homes and resources for LGBTQ youth, her case is just one example of the inability of the current system to take care of the most vulnerable among us.”