DCF envisions a better way to work with incarcerated juveniles

The state’s child welfare agency has envisioned what it considers a better way to operate a locked facility for youths who break the law, offering a preview of what a juvenile justice system might look like after the state closes its controversial jail for juveniles in Middletown.

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz having dinner with the boys at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School.

CT Mirror file photo

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz having dinner with boys at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has set a July 2018 date for closing the facility that houses youths not convicted of crimes serious enough to land them in the adult criminal justice system.

“Let’s strive for national best practice as we’re seeking to replace the training school,” Fernando Muñiz, the deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families told the panel that oversees the state’s juvenile justice system Thursday.

Those best practices would include making locked facilities “as dorm-like as possible.”

Family members would be allowed to visit 365 days a year, youths would be allowed to wear their own clothes and prepare family-style meals together, and the facility would be limited to no more than 50 youths.

Currently, families can visit five times a week and legislators, and DCF officials have been hesitant about whether it makes sense to allow the boys to wear their own clothes. Their concern has been that the boys would be too focused on who has the coolest clothes or that they would display gang colors.

Since three-fourths of boys who leave the juvenile jail return home, family connections should be fostered while youths are incarcerated. To help accommodate that, DCF said transportation for visits ideally would be offered to families at least once a week. DCF officials also said they would prefer having secure facilities located throughout the state so families wouldn’t have to travel more than 50 miles to visit.

Now, families often don’t make it.

In the last fiscal year, one-quarter of the boys at the juvenile jail had no therapy sessions with their family. For families that do make it, the frequency ranges from twice a month to every other month.

Reasons for the lack of visitation vary. A mother may have to travel for three hours from Bridgeport on public transportation. A family might want to show tough love for a child who keeps getting into trouble. Or a youth’s family is struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues. Regardless, Muniz said, removing barriers on the state’s end is an important step, though it comes with a price tag.

The state is facing a $1.3 billion budget deficit next fiscal year.

No locked facility should house more than 10 youth on any single unit, bedroom doors shouldn’t be locked and all staff should be therapeutic staff.

Currently, the juvenile training school houses about 15 youths on each unit, staff lock them in their rooms at night from a control panel, windows are about four inches wide and youth service officers responsible for maintaining safety at the facility and are different from mental health staff members who provide therapy.

“Not all of this would work at every security level,” Muñiz told the state panel that oversees the state’s juvenile justice system.

For example, he said some youth like having their bedroom doors locked. “Some think it is confining, and others feel protected that the doors lock at night,” he said.

The department is also looking to place more youths with non-profit community providers, and the governor’s budget director met with several providers Thursday to discuss how that could be achieved.

The panel drew its conclusions about best practices after meeting with hundreds of providers, advocates, social workers, and children who have been at CJTS, and after getting recommendations from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national nonprofit that advocates for closing prison-like facilities for juveniles.

The Connecticut Juvenile Training School came under increased scrutiny over the past year after the state’s child advocate released an investigation that charged an excessive use of seclusion and restraints at the facility. Videos showed youths being restrained and dragged into padded cells for not following orders. Reports from other national experts also outlined problems.

DCF plans to present its final plans to the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee during its September meeting.

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