Op-Ed: For Josh’s sake and Jane’s, can DCF listen to others?

Martha Stone:

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

Martha Stone:

Josh, not his real name, is a client of mine, a 17-year-old kid who has suffered abuse and many other unimaginable traumas in his young life. For the past four months, the state of Connecticut – that is you and I – kept Josh at Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS). Not for any new arrest, but because he disobeyed a staff member at his group home and went down the street to smoke a joint.

Misbehavior yes, but not one that has warranted a maximum-security institution at $800-plus-a-day.   Even parole admitted he was ready for discharge two weeks after he got there, but there simply wasn’t any group home or foster home available to take him.

Op-ed submit bugHe had no visits from anyone outside the system, other than me and a teacher from his previous school.  He has no parents or siblings around, no foster mom, no mentor, no friends, no support network.  And there are many others just like him.

Why? Because the Department of Children and Families (DCF) has a lot of kids who bounce around because of a lack of appropriate resources. DCF’s ability to move the needle ahead to serve the children in its care has remained stuck. Even more disturbing — the department refuses to accept appropriate expert advice within the state and outside to reform itself.

Last March, DCF proposed a second locked girls’ juvenile justice facility. I opposed this for a host of reasons, including the lack of a continuum of step-down services, an ill advised plan to place high-need girls together, no measurable goals or evaluation component and an absence of data demonstrating a need for another 12 maximum-security beds.

We asked DCF and the legislature to bring in some national girls’ juvenile justice experts to determine if it was needed —  and, if so, to assist in its design. But the offer was summarily rejected and DCF forged ahead and opened the “Pueblo Unit” anyway.

And have the girls fared well since then?   A statement from the Office of the Child Advocate cites a disturbing frequency of “assaultive or aggressive” incidents at Pueblo. This doesn’t sound to me like a gender-specific milieu conducive to address the trauma girls are exhibiting.

CJTS has had its share of recent problems also.   The number of boys locked up there is at a decade high. And this has led to overstays– kids ready for discharge but lacking any place to go.

The department adopted a sound philosophy that kids should be served in state and in the community, rather than in institutional care or out of state.  Good plan, but precipitous execution. Edicts to close  group homes and other residential facilities and orders to let very few cross borders into Mass. and New York were carried out much too quickly before carefully constructed community-based resources could be developed with the savings realized  from reduced institutional care. So for high need kids in the juvenile justice system, incarceration has become DCF’s default option.

Overstays and the high census have also led to fights and restraints at CJTS. Josh was one of the victims of the traumatizing experience of restraint.  And there are well over 100 incidents where boys have been subject to physical and mechanical restraints in the last three months. The CJTS Advisory Board implored DCF to call in an ombudsman to monitor the children’s grievances and use a quality assurance system that is external to the facility.  DCF remained stoic and again refused.

And what about Jane Doe?  You would think with all the publicity she has received, she would be on track by now to a fulfilling, safe life. But she has been moved five times this year  — from detention to a treatment facility to CJTS to York Correctional Institution (an adult prison) to the Pueblo Unit back to CJTS.

The one option DCF hasn’t tried is perhaps the one option she needs the most, a foster family.   Now she sits in a room at CJTS in isolation once again.  Isn’t it time to take the experts from Connecticut and around the country up on their offer to help develop a better plan for her?

While the kids in juvenile justice are being failed by DCF, other problems in the agency are swirling.  The latest federal court monitor’s report showed that “thousands of children and families in need of behavioral health, substance abuse, educational, medical, domestic violence, permanency and other services are struggling to access the limited appropriate services now available.”

We have seen disturbing reports emerge recently from the Office of Child Advocate about 11 fatalities of children in contact with DCF in the first five months of 2014. And finally, kids with mental health problems are languishing in emergency rooms for days, according to a report earlier in the month in The Connecticut Mirror.

DCF’s insular attitudes harm Josh, Jane and far too many other children. Mahatma Gandhi was able to acknowledge that “I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.”  DCF urgently needs to follow suit. It should stop and listen to experts within and beyond our borders who are offering the help that Connecticut’s children need.

Martha Stone is executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy.

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