State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan on Tuesday released several disturbing surveillance videos showing Department of Children and Families staff using restraint and seclusion on juveniles in custody at the agency’s two locked facilities in Middletown.
This is the first time the videos — which were obtained during an 18-month investigation into the two facilities — have been publicly released. The faces of the youth in the videos and the staff at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and the Pueblo Girls Program have been blurred so that they can’t be identified.
Eagan said that by releasing the videos publicly she is trying to shine a light on the incidents that are now part of the public discussion, and she further hopes to improve outcomes for the children in DCF care and to convince the state to consider alternatives to incarcerating young people.
“OCA is entrusted with critical and material information that few people or organizations ever get to personally see,” Eagan said. “…While a balancing of interests is critical to the responsible handling of these statutory obligations, OCA must lean toward disclosure of even sensitive information where such information is critical to the public’s understanding of a child-serving system and necessary to shedding light on the experience of children in state care.”
During a webinar that coincided with the release of the videos Tuesday, Eagan and Chris Lyddy, the former lawmaker and social worker who helped Eagan compile the 66-page report, described each incident and what, according to DCF’s own reports, precipitated the take-downs, the use of shackles, or the need for seclusion. Embedded in the videos is text from incident reports filed by DCF staff members.
It’s unclear if any of the staff in the videos were disciplined. DCF said they can’t obtain that information without the name of a staff person, and the Office of the Child Advocate does not have information about DCF personnel.
In one of the videos a youth they’re calling “Eleanor” refuses to go to bed and is eating a bowl of peanut butter and bananas. As staff approaches her she backs into a corner and one staff member puts on a spit guard on and has an “impact” pillow on his arm. Three staff members confront her for three minutes before they move in to restrain her for 45-minutes.
“Youth who have experienced complex trauma, such as this one, will respond to normal stressors or simple asks or requests in a way that resembles this,” Lyddy said. “They are asking themselves not ‘will you hurt me,’ but ‘how will you hurt me’ and ‘when will you hurt me’.”
Eagan said it’s notable that when staff approach Eleanor she steps into the corner.
“That’s not a response you or I would have,” Eagan said. “That is a response more likely in youth that has a trauma history.” She said this youth has a significant history of abuse and neglect.
She was escorted to a padded cell where she tried to choke herself with a piece of her sweater. Staff cut the sweater and she was eventually returned to her room, but she was later criminally charged with assaulting the staff.
(WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING CONTENT)
In another video, “Jennie” exits her room only to be taken down by DCF staff, who then take her to her room after restraining her on the floor. After DCF staffers leave her room, she starts ripping out her hair. Later, she hides in a corner 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.”
The incident was a concern for Eagan and her staff because the girl has asthma and staff at the facility used a prone restraint when they placed her face down on her bed. She was taken to the hospital at the conclusion of the incident and then sanctioned when she returned to the facility.
DCF officials banned the use of prone restraints on July 23, the day after Eagan released her original report.
Tuesday’s webinar, which walked news media and members of the public through the videos, was an addendum to that report.
Another video shows incidents involving Roberto, a 16-year-old boy diagnosed with PTSD and depression, who 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. As soon as the restraints are removed he drops to the ground and is seen lying on the floor in the corner of the padded cell for at least an hour before anyone comes to check on him.
At least two of the videos Eagan released Tuesday show youth attempting to use their shirts to commit suicide.
Research around the country confirms that youth in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems are at heightened risk for suicidal behavior and that those in confinement are at heightened risk for intentional self-injury, according to Eagan.
Eagan and her staff found that in 21 of the 55 incidents of suicidal or self-harming behavior, the youth were punished by the facility after trying to hurt themselves. Most of those youth had significant mental health disorders, which is consistent with national literature.
The sanctions the youth faced for attempting to harm themselves varied from seclusion to being kept “out of program time,” which means they aren’t allowed to attend school in the facility and must sit in a chair outside their door.
“Restraint is a counterproductive way to address most adolescent behaviors — and not a therapeutic or effective approach for young people who are trauma survivors, as most in CJTS and Pueblo are,” a group of juvenile advocacy organizations said in response to the videos. “Restraint and isolation are the tools of a correctional environment, which can never be an appropriate place for children.”
Advocacy organizations, including the Center for Children’s Advocacy, the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, Keep the Promise Children’s Committee, NAMI-Connecticut, National Juvenile Justice Network, and Youth First! have called for CJTS to be closed.
David McGuire, legislative and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said “the goal of our juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, not punishment.”
He said the videos are “disturbing” and depict something other than “how children with mental health issues should be treated by their guardian.”
The Department of Children and Families said it’s already taken action to ban the use of prone restraints and is phasing out the use of mechanical restraints.
“We have already begun more effective use of clinical staff to prevent restraint and seclusion whenever possible consistent with safety,” the department said in a statement. “We are now implementing additional comprehensive action steps that will significantly improve the care and treatment of the youth at both the boys and girls programs while also reducing the use of interventions that we all want to avoid.”
In addition, the department said it has taken the following steps to improve the facilities:
• Developed a comprehensive action plan to address issues identified internally, by an external national consultant and advocates.
• Expanded the roles of the clinician allowing for additional hours at the facility during evenings and the weekends.
• Established formalized, multi-disciplinary de-briefings after significant behavioral incidents with youth.
• Staff at all levels continually receive training, supervision, and coaching pertaining to more effective interventions.
DCF has also uploaded longer, “full-length” versions of videos from the facilities to its website, which it says give more context into the incidents described by Eagan and her staff.
Rep. Diana Urban, who co-chairs the Children’s Committee, said she doesn’t understand who benefits from the release of the videos.
She said DCF has already come up with an action plan to improve training and decrease the use of restraint and seclusion.
“The point has been made about what needs to happen,” Urban said. “I want us to be moving forward.”
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, who has called for the resignation of DCF Commissioner Joette Katz, said the videos released Tuesday prove the commissioner knew about these problems “yet continued ahead with blinders on.”
He said Katz didn’t begin to make the changes until Eagan released her report, which contained information Katz and DCF already had.
“She has refused to implement common sense reforms universally supported by independent child advocates and used successfully at other state juvenile facilities to improve conditions of confinement, program efficacy, transparency and outcome accountability for these children,” Fasano said. “That is unacceptable.”
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who renominated Katz for a second term, has continued to defend the former Supreme Court justice.
The administration has the “utmost confidence the commissioner will work to address the problems outlined in the report,” Mark Bergman, Malloy’s former communications director has said.
Videos from inside CTJS and Pueblo: