Doug Hardy photo
Child Advocate Sarah Eagan in her office in Hartford (Doug Hardy photo)

The Office of the Child Advocate has identified numerous safety risks, incidents of abuse, and the use of “unlawful” restraint and seclusion at the Department of Children and Families’ two locked facilities for boys and girls in Middletown. The information is part of a report, released Wednesday, that also indicates that some whistleblower calls made by DCF staff about the abuse were ignored.

The 18-month investigation by the state Child Advocate’s office involved a lengthy review of videotape from the facilities showing youth being physically restrained and locked in padded cells for not listening to staff or after attempting suicide.

On Tuesday, Child Advocate Sarah Eagan gave a handful of reporters an opportunity to view video captured by security cameras at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) and the Pueblo Girls Program during some of the more extreme incidents described in the report. She did not release the videos for public viewing, and the report uses fictitious names for each child.

In one video, Roberto, a 16-year-old boy diagnosed with PTSD and depression, was found face down in his bed with a shirt tied around his neck. The staff at CJTS handcuffed and shackled him and brought him to a padded cell.

From the report: “Roberto can be seen on the videotape brought into the padded cell in handcuffs and leg shackles, surrounded by 4 staff members. He stands in the corner, with his face to the wall, then drops to his knees to allow staff to remove his leg irons. All four staff members exit the padded cell. Roberto then curls in the corner of the cell, face to the floor, and sobs. The video ends. Documentation related to this incident notes that Roberto was later assessed by a nurse through the door of the padded cell. She did not enter. Roberto was medically assessed two hours later but was not seen by a therapist while in the padded cell or during the rest of the day.”

Then there’s Eleanor. A video shows the teen with a long history of abuse, neglect, and trauma eating a bowl of peanut butter and bananas in the corner of a hallway of the Pueblo Unit.

According to the report, Eleanor “threatened” staff with the bowl of peanut butter and bananas and refused to go to her room. After more than five staff members, including one with a shield of some kind, tackled her and sat on her for more than 45-minutes, she was arrested for assaulting a staff member during the restraint. She was sent to the women’s prison in Niantic and then returned to the Pueblo Unit only to be arrested again for assault and returned to Niantic.

Another youth — Jenny — was tricked into coming out of the dayroom to “use the phone.” When she emerged into the hallway, the video shows five youth service officers, also including one with a shield, violently tackle and restrain the teenager.  She is carried into her room, and left screaming inside. After DCF staffers leave her room, she starts ripping her hair out. Later, she hides in a corner of her room and ties her shirt around her neck. Staff then run back in and cut the shirt off with a rescue hook. She is heard screaming, “I can’t stay in here by myself.”

At one point the on-call clinician comes on the unit who takes over filming the incident with a hand-held video camera. 

The records Eagan and her staff reviewed found that over the course of one year — from July 1, 2014, to July 1, 2015 — juveniles in the two facilities were physically restrained 532 times and handcuffed or shackled 134 times.

State law allows physical or mechanical restraints or seclusion to be used to “prevent immediate or imminent injury to the person or to others,” but Eagan concludes that they are being used at these facilities as behavior management.

“To expect struggling youth who have cognitive challenges, mental illness and other difficulties to sit in a chair, socially or physically isolated from others for lengthy periods of time or even days, is a futile, un-therapeutic and potentially harmful practice,” Eagan wrote in the report.

Eagan said the use of restraint traumatizes both the youth and the staff. Eagan also points out that DCF’s records are inconsistent about how many times restraint or seclusion have been used, and that there are discrepancies when the reports are aligned with the videos obtained by Eagan and her staff.

The Child Advocate’s investigation was undertaken in part because of concerns brought to the office by whistleblowers, including DCF employees who work in the facilities, as well as others who don’t work there. The report says many of the whistleblower calls to the DCF hotline about abuse or neglect within the two locked facilities were never accepted by DCF for further investigation, and records of the calls were not maintained after 60 days.

From the report: “Multiple facility staff spoke with OCA confidentially and raised concerns that certain adults are permitted to verbally abuse or threaten youth: ‘I’ll knock your jaw out.’ ‘I’ll beat your ass.’ ‘You are a piece of shit.’ A Parole Officer called in an allegation that his adolescent client was being bullied by certain facility staff, that he was called ‘retard,’ and ‘Forrest Gump.’ The allegation was accepted by DCF for investigation but was not substantiated.”

The report also describes an April 2015 incident involving Jason, a 14-year-old 8th grader, in which a facility manager called the DCF hotline and reported that a staff member, during an intervention, grabbed the youth, “picked him up and slammed him to the ground.” The report was not initially accepted by the hotline for investigation, but after the OCA challenged the decision the agency opted to investigate.

According to Eagan’s report, DCF found that Jason had a medical alert in his file stating that he could not be restrained on his stomach with any pressure on his abdomen because of congenital kidney abnormalities and a history of asthma.

From the report: “The DCF investigator looked at a videotape which showed staff, during the course of a physical intervention, picking up Jason, raising him to shoulder height and slamming him to the floor. Staff placed his knee onto the boy’s stomach and chest and put his arm around the boy’s throat area. The boy was criminally charged as a result of the incident. The man was not.

Unfortunately, although investigators substantiated the staff member for physical neglect, they decided not to substantiate physical abuse, apparently due to the boy’s ‘lack of injury.’ However, the boy reported to investigators that his hips and shoulder were sore for days; and given his medical issues, he was at much greater risk of physical harm from the staff member’s deliberate actions.”

Eagan said when some of her office’s findings were identified to DCF, they were rejected. Specifically, Eagan said the department rejected the findings of “inappropriate restraint and lengthy seclusions” and “inadequate treatment support for youth in crisis.”

Despite the whistleblowers and the Child Advocate’s assertions, DCF has maintained that the facilities were operating appropriately.

“Throughout, DCF facility administrators have maintained in meetings with OCA that most children do well at CJTS and Pueblo, and the agency’s public reports or statements frequently reference programmatic resources and census information regarding how many children enter CJTS/Pueblo and how many discharge,” the report says.

Eagan’s report also says her office has been unable to obtain up-to-date educational attendance records from the Connecticut Juvenile Training School database. The youth at the facility are supposed to continue their educations, but many of them frequently miss school participation because they are in seclusion or have been suspended or simply refuse to attend. One boy profiled in the report was issued 200 days of restricted status during his 15 months at the facility.

Eagan did point out that DCF has recently taken steps to reduce the practice of secluding youth for misbehavior. The agency also promised greater adherence to trauma-informed care, a suicide prevention audit, and reduction in the use of restraint and seclusion.

“We appreciate the Child Advocate’s work on this report, and as we have previously released, we have already begun a process to address the issues cited in the report,” the Department of Children and Families said in a statement.

“As was recommended, there are several focus areas for improvement, including more effective crisis management and treatment for youth who have serious behavioral health needs, a reduction in the use of restraints and seclusion, more time engaged in educational and rehabilitative programming, enhanced trauma-informed services, improved suicide prevention, and more effective use of data,” DCF added. “All these areas are being addressed by an improvement plan, which is now in various stages of development and implementation.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Wednesday he’s happy the state is making advances, but “it has to make more advances.” He said the reality is there are fewer young people in those facilities than any other time in the past and if he had been governor more than a decade ago the Connecticut Juvenile Training School wouldn’t have been built.

But it exists and “I think there’s more progress that we can make,” Malloy added.

Eagan’s report comes on the heels of a report from Robert Kinscherff of the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, a national expert. Kinscherff was contracted by DCF to conduct his own study, and he pointed out some of the same problems with the two facilities. Kinscherff also highlighted a lack of available clinicians during certain times of day:

“A disproportionate number of incidents leading to restraint and seclusion reportedly occur on second shift when there are no 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,” he wrote.

Both reports highlight a tension between the mission of the juvenile justice system to rehabilitate boys and girls through therapy, or to incarcerate them.

The report says CJTS is described as a maximum-security facility and has razor-wire barriers and isolation cells.

CJTS and the Pueblo Girls Program cost the state more than $32 million annually with a projected cost of approximately $750 per child, per day.

DCF has stated that its vision for juvenile justice intervention is to provide therapeutic programs that rehabilitate youth and increase their chance of success in the community.