Screengrab from video released by OCA.
DCF officers lay across the legs of a girl, while an officer handcuffs her (Screengrab from video released by OCA.)

Union Says Agency Trained Staff In Procedures For Which They’re Now Being Disciplined

Over the past three years, four staff members at DCF’s locked facility for boys and girls in Middletown have been disciplined for improperly restraining children, and of those four, three were either terminated or they opted to resign.

The Department Children and Families released the disciplinary information Monday following a request from CTNewsJunkie three months ago when the Office of the Child Advocate allowed members of the news media to view surveillance videos of restraint and seclusion incidents from within the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) and its Pueblo Girls Program. The Child Advocate eventually released all of the videos to the public Sept. 15.

The disciplinary actions against three Youth Service Officers and a police sergeant who is still with the department were not related to the eight surveillance videos released last week by Child Advocate Sarah Eagan.

The release of the videos followed Eagan’s report in July, which detailed incidents of youth being physically restrained and locked in padded cells for not listening to staff or after attempting suicide.

The records Eagan and her staff reviewed found that over the course of the year ending July 1, 2015, juveniles in the two facilities were physically restrained 532 times and handcuffed or shackled 134 times. Her office also found that the agency had no corresponding documentation for some of the incidents that were captured on surveillance video.

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 concluded that they are being used at these facilities as behavior management.

Of the three Youth Service Officers at CJTS who were terminated, one was let go as recently as this month.

“You used an unauthorized restraint technique when you lifted the resident off the floor and slammed him to the ground,” states Youth Service Officer Sean Dupree’s termination letter dated Sept. 16. “In addition, you held the resident to the floor in a manner that is contrary to his behavior support plan.”

The letter continues: “Specifically, the behavior support plan calls for no direct pressure to the abdomen due to a medical condition; yet you were observed on video placing direct pressure on the resident’s torso.”

Another Youth Service Officer, Ted Buonocore, was notified that he was to be terminated during his probationary period. He eventually resigned on Aug. 11, 2014.

“On July 5, 2014, a girl had gotten out of control and picked up a female co-worker and slammed her to the floor. She was in the process of assaulting another employee when they were trying to escort her to her room. I went in and restrained her by putting her on her back and held her. She kicked me, at which time, I said, are you trying to assault me,” Buonocore wrote in his version of events that led to his resignation. “They thought that I was [raising] my voice and they discharged me [for] raising my voice. I did nothing physically wrong.”

Buonocore eventually resigned on Aug. 11, 2014.

Andre Clarke, another Youth Services Officer, “engaged in a restraint with a resident and punched the resident in the head; after being pulled away from the resident you returned and stomped on the resident’s head while he was on the floor.”

Clarke was terminated in August 2013.

Police Sergeant John Trammell, who still works at the facility, was disciplined May 20, 2015, for an incident that occurred Dec. 9, 2014. According to the DCF report, Trammell placed his knee in the back of the resident while removing handcuffs in a padded cell. The resident repeatedly stated that he could not breath, according to the DCF report.

Screengrab from video released by OCA
DCF officers take the handcuffs off a boy in a padded cell (Screengrab from video released by OCA)

Paul Lavallee, the president of AFSCME 4 Local 2663 representing the three who were terminated, would not comment about the specific cases. But Lavallee said the recent publicity has led to a sudden culture change in what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate at CJTS. He said DCF had trained his officers in techniques manage the population at the facility. But he said DCF is now disciplining officers for using those same techniques, and the severity of the discipline has increased over the past month.

“It’s heavy-handed discipline,” Lavallee said.

He said he doesn’t have a problem with his officers being told they are doing something wrong, but he does have a problem when discipline comes before re-training. Lavallee said he could appreciate the agency’s response if there was a pattern of using a wrong technique, but he said it’s wrong to swiftly discipline someone for a first offense.

“Who’s running the ship over there?” Lavallee said.

The union has scheduled a press conference for next Thursday to discuss what’s happening inside the facility.

Lavallee said about 20 to 30 percent of his officers are out on workers’ compensation because of work-related injuries and he added that previous administrations have been more supportive of the workers.

Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz said the videos released by Eagan “show the difficult work staff confront serving the most challenging youth in the juvenile justice system.”

Katz continued: “Our obligation to serve these youth is just as great as it would be for any other child. Accordingly, we have taken needed disciplinary action with four staff, and three no longer are employed with the Department. Further, we are implementing a comprehensive, proactive set of reforms to reduce the use of restraint and seclusion overall.”

She said the department is working on phasing out certain restraints, expanding clinical hours, and strengthening the clinical role in preventing the use of restraint and seclusion.

“We are confident that a committed, talented and caring staff — coupled with our proactive reforms — will continue to provide a therapeutic environment to children who need it most,” Katz added.