Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” is based on a core American value that people should be allowed the opportunity to recover from mistakes once they address the factors leading to their behavior and emerge as better persons who meet their responsibilities to family and community.

Nowhere is that vision more evident than in Connecticut’s juvenile justice system, which is built around the belief that youth who get in trouble deserve and require help to address the traumatic experiences and needs that led to their behaviors. In Connecticut, more than 10,000 children are subject to a Juvenile Court delinquency proceeding each year, and 97 percent of these are served by the Judicial Branch with some form of community-based assistance. The other three percent — who generally have several unsuccessful turns at these community services — get committed to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) as delinquents to receive a more intensive level of treatment in a private residential setting or a secure setting. Those youth served in the state-run secure settings are a relatively small number who present with the most complex needs and highest risk.

It is because DCF is committed to a rehabilitative model of juvenile justice focused on trauma-informed, clinical and therapeutic interventions that we are taking additional steps to improve the two secure programs DCF operates for delinquent youth. The Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) currently serves 74 boys — the lowest number since opening in 2001. The Pueblo Unit has served a total of 30 girls since it opened in March 2014, and it currently serves four.

To support continued improvements, the department recently sought a study of both programs by Robert Kinscherff of the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, a national expert in the educational and mental health needs of youth in juvenile justice systems. The report, which offers a national perspective, noted that Connecticut already is a leader among the states in implementing reforms, including a 60 percent reduction in confined youth from 2001 to 2011, and that DCF’s two secure programs stand out for their clinical resources and treatment focus.

In order to make additional progress in establishing a rehabilitative approach at CJTS and Pueblo and as supported by this new report, DCF is establishing improvements to become more effective in identifying individual needs of youth and to offer more responsive services to meet them:

• Use of standardized, tested needs and risk assessment tools that will identify the types of help individual youth require, including identification of the traumatic experiences (“adverse childhood experiences”) youth and their families must overcome to be successful;
• Implementation of a classification system to reflect the individual differences in needs and risks among youths that will be used to determine residential unit assignments, length of stay guidelines, and service types;
• Greater adherence to a trauma-informed service approach through a department review of the practices now used at both programs, staff training and an ongoing audit process; 
• Improved crisis management that reduces the use of restraints and seclusions by focusing on the small number of youth who are subject to a disproportionately high number of such interventions by creating individual management plans for these youth;
• Enhanced suicide prevention efforts through additional training and a comprehensive audit of policies and practices, and;
• Establishment of a data dashboard to measure key indicators of program effectiveness and quality that can be integrated with Judicial Branch information systems.

The implementation of the new needs assessment is important because the same tool (the “Child and Adolescent Needs Assessment” or “CANs”) is used by the Judicial Branch Court Support Services Division (CSSD). This will support much greater coordination and integration of efforts across the two systems as well as better placement decisions specifically tied to a youth’s needs and risks. The department also will use a tool derived from the ground-breaking “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACE) Study that demonstrated the multiple risky behaviors and poor outcomes that children are exposed to after experiencing trauma in their early years. This ACE tool will shape the interventions that the youth receives to ensure that services are trauma-informed and responsive to the needs that have emerged from his or her earlier experiences.

The report also is notable for dismissing concerns that opening a new secure unit for girls would lead to the unwarranted use of the program in light of the department’s successful move away from out-of-state and in-state private congregate programs. “Since its opening in March 2014, however, Pueblo Unit has admitted only a handful of girls and this suggests DCF has avoided ready use of the unit as a means of holding girls who can be served at lower levels of services,” the report states, adding this stands in contrast to what is “often seen in ‘deep-end’ facilities in other juvenile justice systems.” The report also notes that, “Some youth have asked to voluntarily extend their term of placement to CJTS so as to achieve educational goals such as earning their high school diploma or completing a course of vocational training. They hold that their chances of achieving these goals at CJTS are much better than if returned to their communities.”

Finally, we cannot reform this system without effective partnerships. Our continuing collaboration with the CJTS Advisory Board, which consists of advocates, experts, law enforcement officials, and representatives from the Public Defender’s Office and CSSD, is crucial to establishing the therapeutic and rehabilitative system that youth need.

Connecticut is recognized as a leader among the states in realizing reforms, and we have made significant progress. We must however institute further improvements because vulnerable youth are counting on us. This is indeed another way to realize a “Second Chance Society” where youth are helped to turn their lives around and become successful adults who give back to their communities.

Joette Katz is the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.