Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie
Gary Roberge, executive director of the Court Support Services Division, left, is shown with a panel of CSSD officials as they hear from service providers about their bidding process for juvenile secure treatment beds (Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie)

EAST HARTFORD, CT – Service providers told judicial officials Monday that required zoning approvals, contract terms and the ability to provide educational programs have combined to stall the development of small, secure local settings for adjudicated juveniles.

“The initial investment to get into a program for eight kids is way too much,” said Wade Goss, with AMJ Kids, a Tampa-based non-profit that treats delinquent juveniles.

Goss came from his office in Georgia to attend an information session hosted by the Judicial Branch Court Support Services Division seeking input as to why one only service provider had submitted a bid to run a secure facility for juveniles in regions throughout Connecticut.

The Judicial Branch was charged by the legislature to take over the care and treatment of adjudicated juveniles on probation from the state Department of Children and Families as of July 2018. Previously, teens who were adjudicated and required treatment in a locked setting were sent to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, a sprawling facility that child advocates said was a form of warehousing delinquent kids.

Under the new plan, CSSD is required to place the juveniles in smaller, residential settings in the communities where they live so they can receive extensive treatment to get to the root of their delinquent behavior and come out with a chance to become successful adults.

CSSD is still looking for several providers to run secure residential facilities that would house eight juveniles at a time, said Gary Roberge, executive director for CSSD.

“We have eight beds in Hamden that won’t be online until August because the building is being renovated,” Roberge said. “We’re hoping to expand that to 16 but we’d like another 16 to 20 at least.”

A little more than 50 of the 174 juveniles that were placed in the care of CSSD from DCF were still on probation and required to be in a residential setting as of April 2019, Roberge said at the time.

As a short-term response, CSSD created two units to house 24 male juveniles required to be in a locked residential setting, one at the Hartford Detention Center and one at the Bridgeport Detention Center. The units are in the same building as the adult detention center at both locations. CSSD also has another 12 beds for female juveniles at a separate location.

Since July 2018, while CSSD has worked to provide secure settings in locations in residential communities, the process has been fraught with budget concerns. During last year’s legislative session, Gov. Ned Lamont initially slashed $11 million from the Judicial Branch’s budget earmarked to provide secure settings for the juveniles that had been shifted from DCF.

The legislature restored the money. But in spite of repeated requests for proposals, CSSD has had few bids from service providers to take on the work. And state officials wanted to know why.

“We’re hoping to have a conversation,” Roberge said. “We’ve had one bid for the past three bid cycles.”

One problem with the current CSSD RFP was that it required the providers to find a location for a secure facility and obtain zoning approvals before submitting a bid, said Heather Gates, president of Community Health Resources, a non-profit that provides behavioral health care for adults, families and children.

“We have had to use attorneys,” Gates said, if a town tries to block a group home or residential treatment facility. “But we’re not going to go down that road if we don’t even have a contract.”

Gates and others estimated the zoning approval process could take up to a year while the bidding process was only two months long. Another issue for Gates was the length of the contract.

“Can you issue 10-year contracts instead of five-year contracts?” she asked. “To purchase a site for only five years doesn’t seem reasonable.”

For Goss’ outfit, which does a lot of “adventure” programming including ropes courses, running a facility for only eight juveniles didn’t make much sense, he said. “It didn’t seem feasible,” he said.

Educating the juveniles was another stumbling block, according to some of the service providers. The RFP requires provision of behavioral health treatment, positive social experiences as well as educational and vocational programming. The plan calls for service providers to bill the school system where the student lives for the cost of bringing in educational services.

“As far as the educational piece, when we started it was clear that towns were not in agreement,” said Sherry Albert, from Community Solutions, Inc.

Albert was concerned that while the state Department of Education agreed to the plan, it would be more difficult to get local educators on board.

“These are real pragmatic issues that have to be worked out,” Albert said.

Gates also pointed out that the CSSD RFP process itself was more complicated than DCF’s or the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services process.

Roberge and a panel of CSSD officials plan to take the feedback culled from the session and draft yet another RFP which hopefully will get results.

“We have to do a whole lot of work in a short period of time,” he said. “We’re going to learn as we go. But over time we will get better at what we do.”