CTNJ file photo
DCF Commissioner Joette Katz (CTNJ file photo)

Following Monday’s release of a report by a national expert, the Department of Children and Families said it plans to focus more on rehabilitation and less on restraint and seclusion at its locked facilities for boys and girls in Middletown.

The 52-page report from Robert Kinscherff of the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice offers several observations about DCF’s practices and facilities, including the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and the Pueblo Girls Program on the grounds of the former Riverview Hospital, referred to in the report as the “Pueblo Unit.”

Kinscherff observed that there is tension about whether the goal of the two locked facilities is to rehabilitate the boys and girls through therapy, or to incarcerate them.

“The uneasy interplay between a juvenile corrections model with an emphasis on ‘accountability’ and a rehabilitation model with an emphasis on ‘treatment’ creates a deep core ambiguity and tension as to mission and methods,” Kinscherff pointed out in his report.

The Connecticut Juvenile Training School currently houses 74 boys, which according to DCF is down from 129 in 2014, and the Pueblo Unit has served 33 girls since its controversial opening in March 2014.

“We will need more to create the therapeutic and rehabilitative system that youth need to recover from adversities and achieve success,” Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz said in a statement accompanying the report.

Katz said some of the improvements recommended in the report, like greater adherence to trauma-informed care, a suicide prevention audit, and reduction in the use of restraint and seclusion were already under way.

Some of the recommendations in the report describe issues that have been cited by juvenile justice advocates for years.

The report pointed out that some of the tension between DCF and juvenile justice advocates are related to the quality of the data the agency produces. He pointed out that the electronic system that stores information about restraint and seclusion and other data about the boys and girls has been described as a “mess” in terms of its operational utility.

The “disagreements about the reliability of information about CJTS/Pueblo Unit and its operations have contributed to contention, miscommunication, and mistrust among state leadership and staff, the juvenile justice legal community, advocates, and others,” he wrote.

While the Connecticut Juvenile Training School was described as “well-resourced” in the report — it costs the state $28 million a year to run — Kinscherff pointed out that there is little in the way of information about the boys who are placed at the facility.

“Steps should also be taken by DCF to track outcome measures for youth placed at the facility such as subsequent days placed in the community, recidivism rates up to three years post-discharge, any child protection contact, and educational/vocational outcomes,” Kinscherff wrote.

Martha Stone, founder of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, noted that tracking those outcomes and having a plan for the youth before they leave the facility is one of the most important things DCF can do going forward.

The report also points out that the state should think about creating a specific entity responsible for statewide DCF juvenile justice programming to ensure there will be attention to these youth for years to come.

Stone said the report also made some good observations about the lack of trauma-care and the use of restraint and seclusion. She said most of these youth are showing up at these facilities because they suffered some sort of trauma that caused them to act out in some way. She said they should be treated for that trauma and not necessarily the conduct that landed them in the facility.

She said the report didn’t get into the details of the overidentification of minority juveniles at these facilities, but it’s something DCF needs to be thinking about.

Within the report, Kinscherff pointed out there has been significant improvement at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School over the past decade, but he also pointed out the need for better suicide prevention practices and more reliable data about restraint and seclusion.

“On the one hand, data indicates that a small number of youth account for a highly disproportionate number of interventions, particularly seclusion,” Kinscherff wrote. “On the other hand, genuinely concerning information has been produced about specific cases regarding seclusion duration, responses to distressed youth, and supervision of youth during seclusion. A disproportionate number of incidents leading to restraint and seclusion reportedly occur on second shift when there are not clinicians scheduled to be on the units, and the role of clinicians during in-room placements or locked seclusion is reportedly largely limited to quick mental status assessments rather than active access and engagement.”

Kinscherff also pointed out the controversy over the Pueblo Unit for girls. Advocates like Stone feel the facility is not necessary and the girls can be served by existing facilities in the community.

“Given the significant deployment of resources required to keep [the] Pueblo Unit operational at its current potential capacity, it is reasonable to ask whether those resources might be more effectively deployed to craft and fund highly individualized supports for the very few girls having the kinds of difficulty stabilizing in lower levels of care that would otherwise prompt admission to Pueblo Unit,” Kinscherff wrote.

Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said her report on the facilities, which is expected out within the next week, echoes and expands on some of Kinscherff’s observations. She said she’s happy to see that DCF is looking to make improvements to ensure all children have access to treatment.

DCF paid Kinscherff $40,254 for the report.