Legislative leaders asked the co-chairs of the Appropriations, Children’s and Human Services Committees on Tuesday to hold legislative hearings on the conditions and practices at the Department of Children and Families’ two locked facilities for juveniles.
The request for hearings follows two reports outlining abuses at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and the Pueblo Girls Program. One of the reports was by Child Advocate Sarah Eagan and another by Robert Kinscherff, an expert from the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice.
“The issues and conditions cited in the Child Advocate’s report and in DCF’s action plan in response require a full and detailed legislative review,” Senate President Martin Looney said Tuesday. “It is important that we have a full accounting of the facts so that we can immediately act to ensure the emotional and physical health and safety of young people under the state’s supervision.”
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey echoed Looney’s statement saying the state has a responsibility to ensure “a safe environment exists for both the youth and staff at these facilities, and that public safety is ultimately improved through the rehabilitation and treatment programs utilized there.”
DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said Monday that the Child Advocate’s report reinforced the critical need to make changes to improve response to the youth, many of whom have experienced trauma that contributes to their behaviors.
Eagan and her staff 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.
Katz said one of the things they would be doing is reducing and preventing the need to use restraint and seclusion. She said they planned to eliminate the use of face down restraints, eliminating the use of mechanical restraints over the next six months except for when youth are being transported across campus, and requiring clinical counseling sessions during the periods when youth are restrained.
A DCF press release Monday also said the agency planned to eliminate seclusion that lasts more than four hours.
Katz and her team had already begun making improvements to the facility following Kinscherff’s report.
Kinscherff 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.
Katz said they are already expanding clinical to second shift and using clinical experts in trauma-informed therapeutic treatment models to train staff on how to improve the overall clinical and direct care staff response to youth. The agency said it also will seek to improve its suicide prevention techniques.
“This is challenging for our staff because there is much change that has to happen quickly,” Katz said. “But as the two reports show, the Department has many partners in this work, including legislators, advocates, the legal and law enforcement community, and clinical service providers who are all working to reach a common goal of ongoing reform of the juvenile justice system. As I and our staff work collaboratively with all these partners, we will continue to make progress at these facilities.”
The Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance applauded the steps Katz outlined, but strongly advised that the steps should be an interim measure and that the state should work toward closing the facility.
“The overwhelming majority of kids at CJTS and Pueblo have profound histories of trauma and often serious mental illness. Prison won’t make them better,” Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance co-chair Robert Francis, said. “While it is encouraging to see DCF take steps to improve safety, this plan should only be a short-term solution.”
Community-based programming is more effective at helping youth refrain from law-breaking and in achieving milestones like high school graduation. It is also far less expensive than incarceration. Currently, Connecticut spends $750 per day on each youth confined at CJTS.
“We absolutely must change practice immediately at CJTS to protect the youth confined there,” Lara Herscovitch, acting director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, said. “But we must also recognize that CJTS has been ‘fixed’ many times before. It does not stay fixed, because it is based on a flawed model. Youth prisons simply do not work.”
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, called last week for Katz to resign in light of the information in the reports. The co-chairs of the Children’s Committee defended Katz and concluded that removing her from her position wouldn’t solve the problems.
Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said that the job of DCF commissioner is the “toughest in state government.” She said it’s like trying to turn a cruise ship with a canoe panel.
Urban said she believes Katz recognizes there are problems “and she is dealing with them.”
Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, the other co-chair of the Children’s Committee, said getting rid of Katz is not the answer to the problem. She said providing DCF with more support is a much better answer.
“She’s dealing with employees who have been there for a very long time, who have been set in their ways,” Bartolomeo said.
Paula Dillon of CSEA/SEIU Local 2001 and Paul Lavallee of AFSCME Local 2663, two of the unions representing front-line employees at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and the Pueblo Girls Program, said Eagan’s report failed to look at the success stories of juveniles at the two facilities.
“Working in a locked environment is stressful and can pose challenges. We believe that we have been successful in overcoming these barriers to provide a supportive and nurturing environment for the youth that reside here. But that part of the story was not included in the OCA’s report and not reflected in subsequent media accounts,” Dillon and Lavallee said in a joint statement Monday. “An unbiased and truly objective advocate for children would look across the board at all of the services provided and note both the positives and negatives for the young men at CJTS and young women at Pueblo.”
In the coming days, the co-chairs will announce the date of the first hearing.