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Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants to close a secure facility for juveniles by 2018, but Republican lawmakers think it should happen sooner and the chairs of the Children’s Committee believe the facility should stay open and be repurposed.

Those differing views of what should happen to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and the adjacent Pueblo Girls Unit were expressed Tuesday during a Children’s Committee public hearing.

Calls to close the secure facility for boys and the one for girls took over the headlines this past summer after Child Advocate Sarah Eagan released video of staff at the school inappropriately using restraints and placing suicidal youth in seclusion. The records Eagan and her staff reviewed showed 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 the videos were released, the Department of Children and Families has changed its policies to prevent the use of restraint and seclusion as a way to control juvenile behavior in favor of more therapeutic “trauma informed” methods. However, for many advocates the facility is too much like a prison and will never be able to provide the therapeutic care they believe the children need in order to become successful adults.

Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, said that closing the facility is about building a juvenile justice system that addresses the needs of the young people in it. That means individualized programming that allows these youth to stay in their communities.

“Institutions teach children to survive within institutions,” Anderson said in her written testimony to the committee.

Christine Stuart photo

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he’s okay with closing the facility in 2018, but would like to see it happen sooner. He introduced legislation with House Minority Leader Themis Klarides that would require the 32-acre facility, built during former Gov. John G. Rowland’s administration, to close by January 2017.

Fasano said he hasn’t heard evidence from any independent third party that believes the facility is benefiting the children. He said these children should be served in the community and the ones who are too violent to be housed in the community should go to a Department of Correction facility for youth.

“I believe the decision for not closing CJTS has nothing to do with policy, has nothing to do with kids, has nothing to do with whether this facility is good,” Fasano said. “I think it has to do with 300 jobs at risk.”

Fasano said there was talk of closing the facility during budget negotiations in December, but the governor refused to agree not to lay off workers if the facility closed. The legislature’s Democratic majority was not in favor of moving forward with a proposal that would jeopardize union jobs so the proposal was scrapped.

Fasano said he thinks the state could retrain most of the staff at CJTS to become prison guards so that a vast majority of them wouldn’t have to lose their jobs.

But the co-chairs of the Children’s Committee weren’t convinced that closing the facility was an appropriate move.

“Can we repurpose that facility?” Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said.

She said there are “amazing” things happening at CJTS and maybe it would be better to keep the facility open and just “repurpose” it. She said she gets that the amount of money the state is spending per child “is way too high.” The state spends about $545,000 to confine one youth to the facility for a year.

She said if the state can utilize the resources more efficiently and bend the cost curve then it should look at doing that.

“I don’t want to hurry to a decision that we’re going to regret,” Urban said.

Paula Dillon, a teacher at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, said the staff are asking lawmakers to take another look at the services being offered. She said the services provided to children at CJTS are not provided to children who end up in the Department of Correction.

“We have to make sure we don’t move too fast and shut things down before we have a good plan,” Dillon said.

The facility costs $53 million a year to operate. It currently houses 43 boys and, at the moment, there are no girls in the adjacent Pueblo Unit.

The Department of Children and Families said it opposes closing the facility by January 2017, but is working toward the July 1, 2018 date set by the governor and is accepting recommendations on the closure at CJTSplan@ct.gov.