Last week, Connecticut hosted visits from two national juvenile justice advocacy organizations. The Youth First! Initiative and Youth Advocate Programs (YAP) came to Connecticut to highlight progress made by other states and programs described as innovative models for serving youth in the juvenile justice system.

In their presentations to Connecticut’s policymakers, Texas was recognized as a leader for reducing the number of youth served in state operated secure facilities by 61 percent over 5 years, and California was commended for reducing the number of youth in a secure facility to 653.  YAP was characterized as a national model because only 5 percent of youth it served were in a secure placement six to 12 months after discharge from the program.

The work of these organizations is impressive, and as we continue to reform Connecticut’s juvenile justice system, we should draw from other states and national models like these to inform our efforts and improve our juvenile justice system. However,  in listening to the advances made in other states, I feel compelled to both highlight the progress that DCF has experienced, reflecting our capacity to implement successful reforms, as well as identify the challenges remaining.

As we testified at the Juvenile Justice Policy Oversight Committee, we currently have 68 boys at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) and 4 girls at the Pueblo Unit – a total of 72 youth in a DCF-run secure facility. This is a reduction from a high point of 141 boys at CJTS in 2014, marking a reduction of about 52 percent in one year.  Of the more than 10,000 youth who pass through the juvenile justice system, roughly 97 percent are successfully served through community based services;  fewer than 300 or 3 percent are adjudicated delinquent and committed to DCF and 72 or less than 1 percent are placed in a locked facility.

Courts send DCF these youth because, despite multiple attempts at community based services, their behaviors have continued, placing themselves and society at risk. The delinquency adjudication often reflects plea bargains to breach of peace or disorderly conduct while the underlying behaviors are far more serious-sexual assault, robbery, assault etc. These behaviors are important to acknowledge, not to vilify the youth or excuse any improper staff behavior,  but rather to identify the best treatment for the youth and training for the staff.

Unfortunately, situations can develop quickly, especially with youth who struggle to learn appropriate responses to challenging situations because of their trauma histories. Restraints and seclusion are not therapeutic interventions, but on rare occasions may be necessary to maintain safety for the youth who risk harming themselves or others. I take responsibility for addressing the concerns raised over the restraints captured on video at the boys and girl facilities. The need to reduce their use is prompting us to implement sweeping reforms including banning and phasing out certain types of restraints, expanding on-site clinical coverage to evenings and weekends, and strengthening the clinical role in preventing the situations that give rise to them. In addition, we have taken disciplinary action against some staff who were involved in these isolated events, most of which occurred more than a year ago.

In truth, these videos reflect extreme outliers in our case practice at CJTS and Pueblo, and they do not present an accurate reflection of the daily work done by the vast majority of staff who are committed to serving our youth with care, compassion, dedication and tremendous skill. The few staff who acted improperly have been disciplined, and I am committed to ensuring that we address any remaining concerns with transparency and accountability, as evidenced by our posting of the videotapes in question in their entirety on the DCF website, along with our action plan with our corrective steps and timeframes for implementation.

I am dedicated to ensuring that our youth can transition into adulthood with hopes, dreams and opportunities to succeed, recognizing that for some youth who experience multi-generational involvement in the criminal justice system, the challenges are even greater. Through our justice reform work, including “Raise the Age”, and Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Second Chance Initiative, Connecticut is recognized as a national leader in justice reform. 

As we continue the dialogue about how to best serve our diminishing number of youth in a secure facility, I am confident that we will continue to make the necessary improvements that will keep us in the forefront.

Joette Katz is the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.

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