A screenshot of Department of Children and Families Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes testifying before the Children’s Committee. Credit: Courtesy of CT-N

Department of Children and Families officials described the agency’s efforts to oversee an emergency group home for girls in Harwinton, which was the focus of a Wednesday legislative hearing called in response to a series of allegations involving abuse and sexual assault.

The two-hour hearing, held in Hartford’s Legislative Office Building, was convened by leaders of the Children’s Committee following the publication of a September report by Connecticut Inside Investigator, which detailed a pattern of police and emergency calls to the Short Term Assessment & Respite (STAR) Home in Harwinton.

The facility is run by the Bridge Family Center and financed through DCF to serve adolescent girls, who are often in crisis and without another place to go.

At the outset of Wednesday’s hearing, DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes offered a timeline of incidents at the group home between the spring of 2021 and this summer. The list ranged from physical and sexual assaults – some of which resulted in the termination of group home staff – to young people going AWOL or, in one case, stealing a group home van.

Dorantes put the incidents in the context of a child mental health system that has strained to serve a heightened level of need since the outset of the COVID pandemic, which has exacerbated trauma already felt by young people.

“We have collectively seen an increase in the acuity of their needs and behaviors. I implore all listening to also consider another driver of this type of externalizing behavior of children is their trauma exposure prior to the young person’s placement in state custody,” Dorantes said. “There is no panacea.”  

The agency serves a small population of children whose needs make them vulnerable to victimization including through Domestic Minor Sex Tracking, Dorantes said. 

“They don’t participate in DMST, they are being preyed upon,” she said. 

Dorantes described the Bridge Family Center, which runs four STAR facilities across the state among other services, as a valued provider. This year, the department stopped admissions to the Harwinton shelter and, as of late last month, there were no longer any young people residing at the home, she said. 

During the hearing, Sen. Lisa Seminara, an Avon Republican whose district includes Harwinton, questioned why DCF continued the provider’s contract despite the rash of sometimes serious incidents.  

“What has to happen in one of these homes that you might deem that this contract shouldn’t be renewed or that they shouldn’t be providing these services?” Seminara said. 

Dorantes said there was no concrete answer to the question, but said her agency investigated the incidents and the provider responded by removing staff members when appropriate, provided additional training, and addressed regulatory issues through service development plans. 

“In hindsight, when we look back over this two-year period and we went through to determine what happened during what period of time, what was going on societally and what was the response of this particular provider and what was the response of the department, I can say that we responded to meet the needs of the incidents that occurred,” Dorantes said. 

Representatives of the Bridge Family Center did not testify during the hearing due to pending litigation. The provider is being sued by the mother of one of its former residents. However, its executive director, Margaret A. Hann, provided a written statement, which was read aloud by the Children’s Committee’s clerk. 

In the statement, Hann said that Bridge employees underwent background checks and drug testing prior to their hiring. Hann said the facility had been treated unfairly, both in media coverage and by local officials in Harwinton. 

“The Bridge has a reputation of serving youth that are routinely turned away by other providers. The youth in our care are the victims of unspeakable traumatic events,” Hann said in the statement. “They have had numerous failed placements including foster care, hospitalizations, residential treatment centers, detention and more.”

Meanwhile, Hann said the Bridge has struggled to hire and retain staff using state funding that has not kept up with inflation. 

“Providers in Connecticut are continually being asked to serve very complicated youth. We do so without hesitation,” she said. “If you could see what we see on a daily basis, you would be amazed at what our staff accomplishes with so little.”

Children are placed in STAR homes like the facility in Harwinton when there is nowhere else to place them, state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan told the committee later in the hearing. Eagan said the state should be supporting the STAR homes as well as Connecticut’s entire system of care for children, which she said was plagued by logjams.

“A lot of [legislator questions] really boil down to ‘Are we giving girls what they need, what they deserve and,’ let me add from the perspective of a lawyer, ‘what they are entitled to?’” Eagan said. “Because we owe them a lot more.”

Rep. Liz Linehan, a Cheshire Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said the panel would continue to work on the issue as next year’s legislative session approaches. 

“This is the very beginning of a very long conversation of working together and moving forward,” she said.