It is a tale of two state agencies that run Connecticut’s juvenile justice system.
One is now under fire from child advocates and attorneys for mistreating incarcerated youth. The other agency once was, but is now considered a national model.
The dichotomy was captured in the reaction of those advocates and attorneys to recent incidents — many at a jail run by the Department of Children and Families for convicted youth and one at a locked facility overseen by the Judicial Branch for youths awaiting trial.
The incident at the Judicial Branch’s facility, described as a “riot” by the Hartford police officers who responded, took place on July 1 at the Washington Street Secure Community Residential Program for Girls. Some “out-of-control” teens had to be physically restrained, several were handcuffed and two were arrested. One employee was sent to the hospital, several youths nearly escaped, and the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division (CSSD) closed the 14-bed facility for nearly a month.
The incident elicited almost no reaction from advocates.
“I am confident they have the situation under control,” said Mickey Kramer, associate child advocate with the Office of the Child Advocate, a state watchdog agency. “They have a pretty sophisticated approach when problems bubble up.”
In contrast, Kramer’s office recently released a lengthy report decrying the “unlawful” use of restraints and solitary confinement at two DCF-run jails and describing the agency as hesitant to acknowledge and fix problems.
“The jury is still out how they are going to respond and whether things improve,” said Lara Herscovitch, acting director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, an advocacy group that called for closure of the DCF-run jails in the wake of the report. “Massive reform is needed for DCF… Judicial has transformed itself to excellence.”
Last year the judicial Branch was responsible for about 11,000 juveniles accused of committing crimes and referred to Connecticut courts. About 1,400 of those were held in Judicial Branch detention facilities until their cases were adjudicated. DCF runs two detention facilities in Middletown for convicted offenders who the agency determines need to be incarcerated.
Contributing to the different reputations of the two state agencies are differences in responses when problems arise, in tracking and sharing outcomes, and in employing outside experts to evaluate programs.
DCF officials say they are working to bridge these differences and implement many of the reforms that the Judicial Branch began rolling out years ago.
“They have long been recognized as a leader. We are very lucky to have them as a partner,” said Elizabeth Duryea, the chief of staff to DCF Commissioner Joette Katz.
Responding to problems
Judicial Branch’s investigation into the incident at the locked facility for girls in Hartford revealed that, because staff delayed getting involved when several inmates began acting out, the atmosphere escalated into a “state of chaos.”
Before the facility was allowed to reopen July 27, every employee of the non-profit organization that operates it, Community Partners in Action, was required to undergo days-long retraining. The organization also submitted a corrective action plan detailing other changes it will make. In addition, the facility staff now meets weekly with Judicial Branch officials, and some court staff now work at the facility full-time.
“Making sure the system improves is what this is all about,” said Maureen Price-Boreland, the executive director of Community Partners. “Asking people to weigh in what went wrong and where we can improve is important. It’s not a bad thing to take a pause. Reset. Evaluate and then move forward.”
The response from Judicial Branch to the incident — the first time police have been called since the facility opened 15 years ago — was enough to reassure concerned advocates and the lawyers who represent youths in the system.
That the Judicial Branch and Community Partners “took swift action to close the facility and address the underlying issues was appropriate. I am hopeful the problems leading to the closure will be resolved as quickly as possible,” said Martha Stone, the leader of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, whose lawyers represent youth in the state’s juvenile justice systems.
Advocates say they feel the Judicial Branch is responsive to their concerns and has implemented reforms it promised to make in 2005 to settle a class-action lawsuit charging that incarcerated youth were being housed in overcrowded jails and were not receiving adequate medical and mental health services while they awaited trial.
“The systems are absolutely in place to provide proper oversight, and [Judicial] is immediately responsive to us when we have questions,” said Kramer of the child advocate’s office.
Listening to complaints
DCF officials, facing backlash over conditions at their Middletiown jails, say they have been listening when concerns are raised.
“We have made numerous attempts to provide ‘no wrong door’ which advocates can bring issues of concern,” Duryea said during an interview.
But the child advocate in her report details the cases of numerous adolescents who she brought to DCF’s attention after reviewing surveillance footage and incident reports. The reports dealt with youths who had attempted to kill or injure themselves or had been left untreated or alone in unsafe conditions. The child advocate said her reports were to no avail, and DCF told her the cases did not warrant investigation.
A national juvenile justice and mental health expert recently outlined the impact this strained relationship is having on a system in need of reform.
“The current atmosphere is corrosive to those best interests as opportunities for good faith collaboration give way to contention,” wrote Robert Kinscherff, a senior associate at the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice and a former official in Massachusetts’ juvenile court system and mental health agency.
Katz, who retired as a justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court nearly five years ago to lead arguably the most criticized agency in state government, is known for her determined personality — a trait that some have said is preventing her from working well with others.
“The commissioner’s dismissive attitude and failure to consider recommendations made repeatedly in the past are preventing the agency from properly protecting children,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said recently, calling her leadership “autocratic.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration has defended Katz, saying she has been turning the DCF around, and pointing out that more children in foster care now live with families rather than in group homes or out of state.
DCF Deputy Commissioner Michael Williams said that while agency officials regularly listen to concerns from the advocates and children’s attorneys, that doesn’t mean there will always be consensus on what needs to happen.
“The awareness is always there. What isn’t there is agreement in what they are viewing is a problem. And that’s where the rub is at times,” said Williams during an interview. “Some would call it a fractured relationship. I would call it a tense relationship. We know we need to have a healthy relationship with them, but that doesn’t mean we always agree.”
DCF officials point to the extensive changes they announced in the wake of Kinscherff’s and the advocate’s reports as proof they are listening when concerns are raised. But advocates point out it took months of complaints and, finally, public reports, before DCF acknowledged problems and announced reforms.
One out of every two adolescents who leave juvenile detention will end up incarcerated again within one year, the Judicial Branch reports.
DCF isn’t sure what happens to its youth when they leave its custody.
The lack of data that the department tracks or releases has left the agency open to criticism that its programs aren’t working.
Meanwhile, the Judicial Branch has been praised for the abundance of data it collects and makes public regarding the use of restraints, other conditions of confinement, incident reports, recidivism rates, and other outcome measures. The data is then compared to that from similar facilities around the country.
“CSSD has become known for its integration of empirically-based ‘best practices’ and integration of data systems into policy and practice decision-making,” Kinscherff wrote in his evaluation of Connecticut’s juvenile justice system.
“The Judicial Branch engages us and provides us with the data so we can determine if a problem is systemic,” said Herscovitch of the juvenile justice alliance.
When the incident at the Washington Street facility happened, Judicial was able to quickly show how frequently incidents had occurred and whether previous interventions were successful in improving behavior.
What they observed was troubling, so they decided to stop admitting girls to the facility until they were confident problems were resolved. This move followed an earlier decision to have the provider implement a corrective action plan in May after it became apparent that the culture at the facility needed to improve.
“It’s an exhaustive reading on the temperature of the facility,” said Stephen Grant, the executive director of the Judicial Branch’s CSSD, of how his staff uses data.
For the 320 offenders convicted and committed to DCF each year, agency officials are working to close this data void by creating a so-called data “dashboard”, though no timeline has been announced for when it will be ready.
Legislation that would have required DCF to report various benchmarks surrounding its juvenile justice program failed to win passage by the General Assembly.
Relying on outsiders
Judicial Branch officials rely on experts from Yale Behavioral Health Services and the University of Connecticut to assess the mental health of those in the juvenile justice system and to provide necessary services.
The Judicial Branch also relies on an outsider to handle complaints about how youths were treated while in state custody. That ombudsman is awarded a multi-year contract in an effort to avoid conflicts of interest.
Grant of the Judicial Branch said his staff is able to quickly identify problems through their use of readily accessible data, the ombudsman’s reports and weekly checkups to the facilities.
“Any concerns immediately get up through the ranks,” he said. “Major brush fires are headed off.”
But the branch was the subject of major criticism before it reached this point, and Grant credits the “Emily J.” lawsuit filed in 1993 with reforming the branch’s approach to juvenile justice.
“It absolutely contributed to change. It was the impetus for some really great strides,” he said.
At DCF, the mental health professionals are agency employees. The ombudsman responsible for investigating the nearly 200 complaints filed each year by inmates is also the agency’s deputy spokesman.
Yet the independent Office of the Child Advocate reports that her five-person staff doesn’t receive nearly as many whistleblower complaints about Judicial Branch facilities as it does about DCF facilities.
Advocates say the agency shouldn’t be left to police itself, especially in the absence of data.
“It strengthens the quality assurance system when you don’t look exclusively to internal employees for quality assurance,” said Stone, who was also the lawyer behind the class-action lawsuit against the Judicial Branch over the treatment of incarcerated youth.
DCF also testified against legislation that would have created an independent ombudsman, calling it “unnecessary” since the agency already has one.
During an interview, DCF officials pointed to the outside assessments of their system done by Kinscherff and by Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform to show that the agency is open to review.
“We do very much seek the benefit of expertise from the national organizations that have their fingers on the pulse of what works,” said Duryea.