Watchdog: ‘Unlawful’ restraints, other failures in juvenile jails

Connecticut Child Advocate Sarah Eagan

CREDIT CHION WOLF / WNPR

Connecticut Child Advocate Sarah Eagan

Jenny was walking on the yellow line from one end of the juvenile jail for girls to the other. And then a male runs from behind her and throws her to the ground. On the way down, her face hits the wall.

Five staff proceed to hold her down as she screams, “Get off of me. Get off of me… I can’t go back in that room,” a five-minute video of the incident shows.

Jenny’s experience is an example of dozens of “unlawful” restraints in the last fiscal year at two juvenile jails run by the Department of Children and Families, an investigation by the state’s Office of Child Advocate concludes.

That investigation found that youths at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School for boys and its neighboring Pueblo Unit for girls were physically restrained 532 times in the year ending June 30. One-quarter of youths at the facilities in any given month are restrained.

The child advocate, Sarah Eagan, says the video of Jenny — reviewed by the Mirror Tuesday — is part of the evidence showing that conditions of incarceration at the training school and Pueblo Unit are dangerous.

The Office of the Child Advocate “must unequivocally state that right now, conditions at CJTS and Pueblo place many youth at risk of physical and emotional harm,” the office’s 67-page report released Wednesday concludes.

In releasing her report, Eagan wrote that her office is also recommending that the state consider closing these facilities and reallocating the funding to “more proven and effective interventions.” The administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has rejected suggestions in the past to close the facilities and Wednesday he told reporters that he needs to read the report before coming to any conclusions about the future of the facility.

“Look, If I had been governor when John Rowland was governor, that facility wouldn’t have been built,” Malloy said.

In a statement shortly after the report’s release, DCF spokesman Gary Kleebatt said, “We have already begun a process to address the issues cited in the report…We have had a great degree of success and have made progress over the last five years, but we know there is more work to be done to make sure every child in our care gets the service they need.”

DCF said it will focus on better crisis management and treatment for those with mental health needs, better suicide prevention, reducing restraint and seclusion, and other improvements.

The child advocate’s office said it had reviewed hundreds of incident reports, surveillance videos and reports regarding suicide attempts and self-injury. In addition, the office honed in on the treatment plans, progress reports and clinical notes for about two dozen youths over a 100-day period.

The report cites several of those cases as examples of unsafe conditions. Among them are cases of offenders who are isolated for hours in response to attempts at suicide or self-injury. The report concludes that confinement is too often not therapeutic for these youths, and it highlights several cases in which they again attempt to injure themselves while alone.

Jenny has spent many hours in confinement during the year she’s lived at Pueblo, the advocate reports.

Jenny — whose name has been changed to protect her identity — is a 16-year-old girl in DCF custody as a foster child because it was determined she was being abused or neglected by her family.

Click to Read the Report

Click to Read the Report

“I can’t stay in here by myself anymore,” Jenny screams repeatedly on a video as staff work to remove a shirt she has tied around her neck.

Staff remove the shirt and leave her in the room again. The advocate says the incident continues for hours as Jenny, who is described as having chronic post-traumatic stress syndrome, continues in crises and staff intervenes.

In another more recent incident described in the report, Jenny was again restrained and brought to the padded cell after telling staff that she didn’t want to go to her room. During this incident, there was no clinical staff and no one called the “on-call” staff.  This incident escalated to Jenny trying to harm herself.

In another incident when Jenny didn’t want to get off the phone, she was restrained and handcuffed and charged with felony assault for hitting staff during the restraint. Forty-four youths were arrested while at CJTS and Pueblo last fiscal year.

Another recent report on conditions in the juvenile jails stated that 34 percent of youth at CJTS have “significant mental heath disorders” and about 90 percent have two or more psychiatric diagnoses.

The child advocate’s office, a watchdog agency, has the authority to review individual cases of children in DCF custody — information not available to the public. CJTS and the Pueblo Unit house youths convicted of offenses not serious enough to land them in the criminal justice system for adults. Youths whose cases have not yet been adjudicated are held in separate facilities run by the state Judicial Branch.

Wednesday’s report said there are more than two dozen documented incidents at CJTS and Pueblo of youths attempting suicide or trying to injure themselves between June 2014 and February 2015. However, after interviewing CJTS staff, inmates and their lawyers and families, Eagan found such incidents to be “underreported.”

Eagan’s said her investigation was prompted by numerous whistleblower complaints from staff at the facilities, and complaints from those incarcerated and their families.

Eagan said that, after appealing to DCF for months to resolve the problems at the facilities, she felt she had no choice but to go public with the problems she found.

She said she also reported specific cases to DCF in which she suspected abuse, but said those reports were dismissed.

“They investigate themselves and, lo and behold, they tell me they don’t think it’s a problem what they saw,” Eagan said during an interview Tuesday.

The Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown

CTMIrror.org

The Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown

In its statement Wednesday, DCF said allegations of mistreatment are investigated by both its investigative child protection staff and its human resources department, and that either may take action against an employee.

Eagan’s report follows increased scrutiny of the state’s juvenile justice system after several controversies last year, including the state’s decision to open the new jail to house girls and disclosure of the living conditions of an incarcerated transgender girl.

Besides her report, national experts from the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice and Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform also have revealed problems. (Read stories about those reports here and here.)

These and other reports have also noted progress by DCF in reducing incarceration, however.

Issues at CJTS and DCF attempts to deal with them have persisted since at least 2013.

“In the past year, there have been some actions by certain staff that are damaging to [our] mission and serve to erode the progress occurring within CJTS,” Katz wrote in a December 2013 memo to staff. 

“There have been allegations of abuses and neglect; lack of supervision that has resulted in youth being injured; language grievances regarding how staff speak to youth; lack of immediately reporting or accurately reporting incidents and overall a sense that some staff are not here at CJTS for the benefit of the youth we serve. These behaviors will not be tolerated,” she wrote.

Advocates and attorneys say they are anxious for things to change, and DCF did announce last week it intends to make several changes to improve the conditions of incarceration.

“Any reforms agreed to by the Department of Children and Families will necessarily require transparency and oversight of implementation efforts,” Eagan wrote.

The Mirror has made numerous Freedom of Information requests of DCF since January for disciplinary reports against staff, grievances filed by inmates, or injury reports. Those requests have gone unanswered.

Eagan says several things need to change to ensure the safety of the 250 youths sent to live at CJTS and Pueblo each year.

  • Stop the “unlawful” use of restraints and seclusion of inmates. State law only allows use of restraint and seclusion in an emergency to prevent individuals from injuring themselves or others. “End it as a form of punishment,” she recommends.
  • Immediately have an outside expert to audit the physical facilities. Her office found that the girls’ facility has “blind spots” in rooms where youth are confined and other potential “safety hazards.”
  • Create a protocol so that those with significant psychiatric disorders have access to mental health facilities as an alternative to incarceration. She recommend DCF work with the healthcare advocate on any barriers these children face in being transferred.
  • Stop removing children from school at the facilities as a form of punishment. She details several stories of individuals who missed more than 50 percent of the school days while at CJTS.
  • Create a timeline for implementing changes recommended recently by national experts and have an annual report on where those reforms stand.
  • Collaboratively review with stakeholders cases where it is suspected that a child was abused while at the facilities in order to increase transparency.

DCF said it is “closely reviewing” the use of school suspensions and other restrictions on program participation as responses to inmate misbehavior.

The state’s Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities aided in the child advocate’s review and said the issues raised in the report are alarming.

“Children at CJTS have been subjected to inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion and have been subjected to unnecessary and harmful segregation and solitary confinement,” the agency said. “This establishes not only a failure of treatment, but also raises the question as to whether their rights, as children with disabilities, have been violated.”

One youth's week in seclusion at CJTS

 

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