Elizabeth Regan photo

It’s all about the kids.

That’s a view shared by staff at the state Department of Children and Families’ two locked facilities for youth and the watchdog groups committed to justice reform who have long blasted the juvenile incarceration model.

But it’s also about context, according to several educators and youth service officers from the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.

The Office of the Child Advocate this summer released a report and a series of videos gathered during a lengthy investigation into the inner workings of CJTS, a boys only facility, and the Pueblo Girls Program. The review was spurred by complaints from DCF employees, child advocates, and family members of youth at CJTS.

The videos provided by the Office of the Child Advocate show youth being physically restrained and locked in padded cells for not listening to staff or after attempting suicide. They include footage from surveillance cameras within the facility as well as hand-held cameras and are paired with text from DCF incident reports.

Suzanne Borner, a special education teacher for eight years at CJTS, was one of several educators and youth service officers who last week joined their unions in decrying the videos as an incomplete and misleading glimpse into the reality of life at the schools.

“We are here today because we do jobs that are far too important for us to remain silent in the face of unfair attacks by the same people who claim to be working in the best interest of youth. We cannot and will not be defined by a handful of irresponsibly edited video clips and intentionally misrepresented information. We cannot and will not allow ourselves to be used as political footballs. We cannot and will not be portrayed as the enemy or the abuser of the young people we are dedicated to helping and healing,” Borner said.

For Borner and many of her coworkers, conveying the full context means videos that show the build up to each incident and the eventual resolution. It means including in reports the small interactions and the more comprehensive efforts designed to facilitate relationships and to improve students’ chance for success — including literacy and math programs, the team sports, the vocational offerings, and the mentorship opportunities.

Borner held up CJTS as a place where youth can receive services and build relationships not possible at Manson Youth Institution, the state’s only prison for juvenile offenders operated by the Department of Correction.

“But Manson will be precisely where many of our youth will end up if CJTS and its services are shut down,” she said.

Youth are admitted to CJTS and Pueblo either through commitment to DCF through the court system; upon the revocation of parole; or if residential, community-based interventions are not effective.

For Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, the full context extends far beyond CJTS, Pueblo and Manson. “It’s about the model of juvenile incarceration,” she said in an interview Friday. “Juvenile prisons have never been found to yield positive public safety results.”

Eagan said the videos — which are not meant to show everything that happens at all times on every shift — are instead meant to publicize the images that got her office’s attention at the beginning of its investigation. Through those specific visual examples, the office sought to shed light on systemic weaknesses in a model that relies on incarceration instead of rehabilitation through therapy.

Take “Jennie,” for instance, whose name was changed and face was blurred to protect her privacy.

The video posted by the Child Advocate showed Jennie emerging from a dayroom after being told she could make a phone call. When she got into the hallway, the video shows five youth service officers, also including one with a shield, tackling and restraining the teenager.  She is carried into her room, and left screaming inside. After DCF staffers leave her room, she starts ripping her hair out. Later, she hides in a corner of her room 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.”

But Sarah Lewoc, a youth service officer and union representative for AFSCME Local 2663, said the video fails to convey staff’s commitment to the children they serve — something that she said can be seen in what came before and what happened after.

“What people don’t realize is that back in July there was a huge riot where every single resident in the facility at Pueblo Unit was involved,” Lewoc said. “There were staff assaults, there were youth assaults and there was mass destruction.”

The abrupt start of the video, according to Lewoc, showed youth service officers’ efforts to return Jennie — who had “barricaded” herself in the dayroom — back to her room as part of the directive to restore order to the environment.

Lewoc said Jennie soon realized the staff member coming up behind her in the hallway intended to restrain her. The youth service officer’s intent was to use a medically-approved, standing method of restraint to the upper torso, Lewoc said.

“The direction she jerked in combined with him making contact with her caused them to fall into the wall and to the ground in a prone position, which is not a position that we are supposed to have the kids in,” Lewoc said. “They immediately, within seconds, attempted to switch her back over to a supine position. At that time her hand came free and she punched that YSO in the ear, blowing out his ear drum.”

The officer declined immediate medical treatment and stayed on for an additional eight hour shift because there was nobody available to relieve him, according to Lewoc. “His behavior that was omitted following that incident speaks to what the YSOs are all about. We’re there for the safety and security of these kids. We care about these kids. You can’t have treatment in a youth facility without the youth feeling safe and secure and without structure,” she said.

To Eagan, Lewoc’s explanation only reinforces the flaws in the system. 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.

The fight that Lewoc was referring to happened the night before, more than 12 hours before the youth service officers decided to take action.

“A youth may have been in an earlier fight, but a youth was calm, lured out of the living room, wrestled to the ground. Those are very risky interventions for staff and youth. They can be harmful for staff and youth, as they were in that case,” Eagan said.

And that’s precisely why those types of response interventions are no longer best practices in the mental health community, Eagan said, “because they don’t work to gain compliance, they don’t work to address a disregulated youth. They don’t calm things down, they escalate kids and increase risk in kids and adults.”

The records Eagan and her staff reviewed 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.

Since 2013, four staff members have been disciplined for improperly restraining children, and of those four, three were either terminated or they opted to resign. The disciplinary actions were not related to the videos released by Eagan.

Despite the latest publicity, teachers like Paula Dillon and John Carpino say those situations are not the norm. Instead, Dillon called youth service officers the “backbone” of the facility.

“They’re the one group of people who best know, understand, care for, and protect our youth. They’re not abusing them. They are not the enemy. On the contrary, our YSOs are the reason behind the countless successes that we see at CJTS every single day, most of which the public will never hear about,” Dillon said.

Special education teacher John Carpino characterized his year at the facility as the most fulfilling one he’s had since he started his career as an educator in both public and private schools eight years ago.

“I drive home and I’m like, ‘wow, I might’ve actually helped someone,’” he said.

Sometimes that accomplishment is the result of helping a 16-year-old student rise from a second grade reading level to a sixth grade reading level. Sometimes it’s the result of newfound trust from someone whose life has been largely devoid of people to count on.

“There are certain kids that don’t make it easy. Some aren’t used to people helping them. Some have had bad experiences in school. I think some kids really don’t know how to take it,” he said. “Some have said ‘you were so nice, it was suspicious.’ Then they see it’s genuine and you end up having these really great relationships with the kids.”

The teachers said 90 students completed their high school credits and graduated while at CJTS since 2010. One of those students asked to stay after their time at the facility was done to complete their credits, CJTS William Rosenbeck told a legislative, executive, and judicial branch committee in August.

When the report and videos came out, Carpino said he was shocked at a portrayal of the facility because it was the opposite of what he sees on a day-to-day basis.

“Every story I read was just a kick in the stomach,” he said. “I wish people could see what we do and see the changes in the students.”

But Eagan’s report is not entirely new. It found many of the same shortcomings outlined earlier this year by independent consultant Robert Kinscherff in a report commissioned by DCF. And both reports showed similar concerns in a 2002 review by the Office of the Child Advocate and then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

Members of the legislature’s Committee on Children and the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee met on multiple occasions this summer to discuss possible action, including the closure of CJTS and Pueblo. Such a move is backed by advocates for children including the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.

The Alliance is asking the state to look at successful models in states like Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, and Texas to see how ending juvenile incarceration can help youth and society. Transitioning to community-based programming in smaller-scale or residential settings has resulted in a host of benefits including lower juvenile crime rates, less recidivism, and a lower cost to taxpayers, according to the group.

No decisions were made by lawmakers, but Rep. Toni Walker, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs both the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee and the Appropriations Committee, said in August that there would be “very concentrated meetings” that will address “the problem” over the coming months.

A statement from the Department of Children and Families thanked the staff of CJTS and Pueblo for their dedication to the children entrusted to their care and said the department is committed to reducing the use of restraint whenever possible as a way to protect both staff and children from injury.

“The men and women working at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and the Pueblo Girls Unit have extremely demanding jobs helping youths whom a judge determined could not be helped anywhere other than a locked setting. These youth are the most complex and exhibit the most difficult behaviors of any in Connecticut,” the statement said.

CJTS Youth Service Officer Peter Maylor described the CJTS population as repeat offenders, many of whom were charged for crimes involving sexual or physical assaults, weapons, and drugs.

“Many of our residents are the size of full-grown adults,” Maylor, an eight-year employee at the facility, said. “They are big kids with the developmental temperaments of teenagers and oftentimes of toddlers. Whatever their histories or diagnoses, no matter how strong our relationships with them, each and every one of our youth, at any given moment, could become aggressive and violent. Each and every one of them is an inherently imminent risk to themselves, other residents, and the staff.”

It’s that level of risk that makes it necessary for them to be in a locked facility like CJTS and Pueblo instead of in the smaller, community-based model espoused by juvenile justice advocates, according to the CJTS staff.

Dillon, with 31 years experience as a teacher, said the students she works with aren’t ready to be a part of the wider community. “They need a facility that can accommodate their needs. What we’re trying to do is get them ready to go back out to a community program, to be able to manage back in the community. They’re not ready at this point, and what we’re hoping to do is help gain their confidence, build skills, become positive role models,” Dillon said.

Borner looked at the situation a different way when she said the community isn’t ready for them. “I think the greater problem is out in the communities, where so much needs to be targeted and support needs to be given, because that’s where failures occur when they leave us and return. That’s where the Office of the Child Advocate should be directing their attention,” she said.

Lewoc, Borner, Dillon, Carpino, Maylor, and those seeking to give the other side of the story would not comment in any specific way on the whistleblowers from within DCF that were cited in Eagan’s report as one of the reasons for her investigation.

According to the report, “Multiple facility staff spoke with OCA confidentially and raised concerns that certain adults are permitted to verbally abuse or threaten youth: ‘I’ll knock your jaw out.’ ‘I’ll beat your ass.’ ‘You are a piece of shit.’ A Parole Officer called in an allegation that his adolescent client was being bullied by certain facility staff, that he was called ‘retard,’ and ‘Forrest Gump.’ The allegation was accepted by DCF for investigation but was not substantiated.”

But Lewoc said even though there may be differences in opinion among staff about the allegations and the motivations for making them, everyone at CJTS has the same goal in mind.

“We all want to see structure. We all want to see clear answers to what we’re expected to do, clear direction to know where we’re headed. I think that if that result happens, the whistleblower will be just as happy as the rest of the people who don’t share the opinion with that individual,” Lewoc said.