Sending children to live out-of-state: Whose decision is it?

Unconvinced that Connecticut boys who have broken the law are being properly treated when they are sent to live at Glen Mills School in Pennsylvania for rehabilitation, officials at the state’s child welfare agency have decided to stop sending children there.

“That’s it, we’re done,” Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz told a crowd in Bridgeport recently, saying that officials there poorly handled a recent incident involving a Connecticut teenager.

Connecticut’s judicial system sent a 15-year-old, identified as Jeffrey M., to live at the facility last fall despite Katz’s beseeching the court to allow her to intervene.

“The commissioner prays that this Court grant her motion,” the state’s attorney general wrote days before DCF’s request was denied and the Hartford teen was sent to live 250 miles away.

Court documents point out that Jeffrey, a first-time offender who had participated with friends in robbing a person, pleaded guilty and agreed to the out-of-state placement so that his case wouldn’t be transferred to adult courts, where punishments are typically much harsher.

Not long after arriving at Glen Mills, Jeffrey was pinned on the ground for seven minutes by four employees after denying that he had been playing in the snow, according to court documents. Jeffrey wrote to his mother about the incident, and soon after the state brought him him back to Connecticut to reconsider his placement.

Judge Christine E. Keller later classified the school as having an “atmosphere of fear and intimidation” and said she found Jeffrey’s account of the incident to be credible. Last April, Keller ordered Jeffrey’s immediate return to his home in Connecticut, where now resides with his mother.

DCF is now asking the Connecticut Supreme Court to intervene and restrict the state’s judicial system from placing children in out-of-state facilities.

“The day-to-day management [decisions have] to be with the executive agency,” Michael Besso, an assistant attorney general, told the court Monday.

Reducing the number of abused and/or delinquent children from being sent to live out of state and keeping them out of large institutions has been a top priority of Katz’s, who was a state Supreme Court justice before stepping down to lead the troubled DCF.

When Katz took over the agency, 364 children were living out of state, a major concern of child advocates. Today, 96 children are living out of state; 12 of them were committed by courts.

Lawyers for Jeffrey insist that the courts should have the discretion to determine where children who have broken the law are placed, especially when, they say, there is no sufficient in-state treatment available.

“They are much more acquainted with Jeffrey M. than any DCF worker,” Naomi Fetterman told the justices of the court system.

Finding treatment

In the summer of 2011, Jeffrey’s probation officer had asked that the state send him to live at the state’s secure detention facility for boys in Middletown. The Department of Children and Families’ behavioral experts wanted to send him home and try probation.

“The Behavioral Health Partnership cannot justify a residential level of care unless attempts at community-based services have failed,” reads their recommendation letter to the court.

DCF had recommended that if Jeffrey needed residential care he be sent to Mount Saint John’s in Deep River.

But his lawyers said that was not an adequate placement.

“DCF could never articulate to the court why Mount Saint John’s was a better placement for Jeffrey. [Saint John’s] has a terrible record. Glen Mills is a much better facility, much better than anything we have here,” his lawyer said Monday of the school, which has a golf course and numerous vocational programs. “DCF’s intentions truly lie with keeping him in state, rather than out of state at an appropriate placement.”

Katz has routinely said that her “religious dedication” to keeping children in her custody in-state is grounded on the fact that children do better with recovery when they are closer to their family. Children who are sent to live in out-of-state facilities take an average of 17 months to return home, compared with nine months for those who stay in state.

DCF officials also believe that they sometimes lack the proper oversight necessary for out-of-state facilities. For example, DCF officials told the court in the Jeffrey M. case that they are only granted supervised visits with Connecticut’s children and rehabilitation plans for children are sometimes not completed. A recent audit of Glen Mills by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare found that of the 24 children’s cases reviewed, one child had been inappropriately restrained and another child had their rights violated.

State law dictating whose authority it is to determine placement reads that “the court may order a child be committed to the Commissioner of Children and Families for placement by the commissioner, in said commissioner’s discretion … in another state facility presumptively for a minimum period of 12 months, or in a private residential or day treatment facility within or outside this state or on parole.”

Child advocates for years have complained that children are lingering in detention facilities as DCF has done a lackluster job providing enough in-state treatment facilities and specialized foster homes. The Judicial Branch reports that the average amount of time a child spends in a pretrial detention facility awaiting placement after they have been convicted or plead guilty is 33 days, but was unable to provide details because of privacy issues if children remain incarcerated because there is no suitable placement for them.

Building capacity

Recognizing the need to provide an in-state treatment facility for boys who don’t require being locked up but who aren’t ready to go home yet either, DCF is proposing reopening High Meadows in Hamden. High Meadows was a state institution that served high-need boys and was closed in 2009 in an effort to save the state millions of dollars.

“I’m not looking to open another institution. We are looking for an outside provider to come in and run this,” Katz told a Bridgeport crowd of lawyers, judges and child advocates earlier this month.

The proposal for the 20-bed male residential center is currently being vetted by the governor’s budget office. The proposal estimates the move would save the state $1.3 million a year by cutting in half the average amount of time these offenders are living in state custody.

“It’s a lovely campus,” Elizabeth Graham, a deputy DCF commissioner, told a roomful of community providers last week. “We’re hoping to identify a private provider and offer this as a step down to those leaving” the state’s secure detention facility.

Abby Anderson, the leader of the state’s Juvenile Justice Alliance, said she’s happy with the department’s proposal.

“There’s certainly a gap for those transitioning,” she said. “We’re all waiting to see how this works out.”

Finding a place for boys isn’t the only gap in available treatment the state’s child welfare agency faces, however.

“We are so struggling with providing girls services in this state,” said Mickey Kramer, the state’s acting child advocate. Her office has released several reports about the dire impact of the lack of services for girls who break the law in the state. The number of girls needing services is small, Kramer said, “but their needs are so intense.”

A national Survey of Youth in Residential Placement reports that 42 percent of girls in state custody for breaking the law have experienced past physical abuse, as compared with 22 percent for boys; 35 percent have a history of sexual abuse, as compared with 8 percent for boys.

Katz plans to have a private provider in the coming fiscal year open a program in the state to house and rehabilitate 12 girls with “highly aggressive behaviors.” These girls typically were sent to live out of state.

Other programs that have already opened to fill a void include a 12-bed facility for children with complex psychiatric problems at the The Village in Hartford.

“It’s a great opportunity to do something new. The first four months they live with us and then we stay with them and keep in touch for the next two years,” said Galo A. Rodriguez, president of The Village.

The Boys and Girls Village in Milford also has finished its training to begin accepting 12 children with problem sexual behaviors.

“We want these children in our state and close to home,” said Katz.

The Supreme Court will soon decide who gets to make that call.

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