Should the Department of Children and Families Connecticut Juvenile Training School be closed? That’s the question lawmakers and state officials tried to answer Friday.
The facility was built during former Gov. John G. Rowland’s administration and opened in 2001.
By 2002, the Office of the Child Advocate and then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had issued a report that found an inappropriate response to suicidality, overuse of restraint and seclusion, insufficient training of staff, no internal quality assurance procedures, and no independent oversight.
Those findings from the 2002 report, according to Lara Herscovitch, deputy director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, are exactly the same conditions found in a recent report by the Office of the Child Advocate and Robert Kinscherff, a consultant hired by DCF to make recommendations about the facility.
“You could almost change the date,” Herscovitch said. “. . . Thirteen years later and we’re having the same conversation.”
Herscovitch argued that Connecticut has been applauded as a national leader for many of its juvenile justice reforms, but it needs to see the forest through the trees and close CJTS.
She said she understands that everyone is trying to make the best of what Rowland built at the time, and everyone admits they would never build a similar facility today, “so let’s fix it for real.”
Asked if the facility should be closed, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said that decision is “not mine to make.”
Of the building itself, she said, “we can all agree was built on a correctional model.”
She said the two buildings in which the youth reside “are correctional in nature” and “I think that creates an issue of culture.”
She said what she would like to do is bring in some architects and ask them to walk through the two buildings to see what it would cost the state to reconfigure them and make them “more like dormitories.”
Katz said her goal is to have as few kids there as possible housed there, but she cited Kinscherff’s report in pointing out the need to have secure facilities.
“If you don’t have it, then you put incredible pressure on the rest of the system,” Katz said. “. . . In my tenure I think there will be a need for a secure facility. The question is, where is it? What does it look like? Those are your decisions to make. Mine is to make them as therapeutic and rehabilitative model as humanly possible.”
However, Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who co-chaired the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee meeting Friday, pointed out that DCF has no idea how much of a success or failure it’s been because it hasn’t tracked the youth after they leave the facility.
She asked DCF if they knew how many youth leave CJTS or the Pueblo Girls Program, which opened in March 2014, and end up in adult prison.
They didn’t have the information, but a DCF official told Walker that they’ve given the past three years of data to the Office of Policy and Management to see if they can match it up with Department of Correction data and get an answer.
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said it blows his mind that they have no data about how the youth are doing after they leave the facility.
“What I’m hearing is that we have no idea what’s happening with these young people after they have completed what’s internal to CJTS, and maybe some four or five months down the road in the community,” Winfield said.
Chief Public Defender Susan Storey asked whether the 44 arrests of youth last year while they were confined to CJTS is any indication of the failure of CJTS to rehabilitate?
William Rosenbeck, the superintendent of CJTS, said “not necessarily, no.”
He said when he arrived at CJTS in 2007 they had over 80 arrests and over the years have been able to cut that number to about 20 per year, but last year they had a spike in arrests. He said many of the arrests were of the same individuals, who just happened to have multiple arrests during their stay at the facility.
“Some are assaults on staff. Some are assaults on other youth,” Rosenbeck said.
Walker, who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, wondered if operating the two secure facilities is the best use of more than $30 million.
“We can’t keep saying we’re going to get to it,” Walker said. “We have to understand who we are serving and how do we best serve them.”
She said that when the state continues to have the same conversation “over and over again” it serves no one. She said over the next three or four months they will have “very concentrated meetings” that will address “the problem.”
“Children in Connecticut need to thrive no matter where they come from and we have to make sure that happens,” Walker said.