Editor’s note: The writer of this commentary piece states that its contents are solely his, and do not necessarily represent the position of the state’s Judicial Branch.
Recently in a Connecticut juvenile court, “Chloe,” a teenage girl, pleads guilty to an offense and is released on house arrest to the custody of her parents pending sentencing. She runs away. She is raped while she is missing.
In still other cases, teenage girls abscond while under supervision, and when apprehended, the FBI is called because of the girls’ disclosures that they were subjected to sexual exploitation or prostitution trafficking. Many of these girls are in juvenile court for violent or assaultive behavior. Most have suffered multiple traumas and require therapeutic interventions.
When a girl presenting a violent or absconding history appears for sentencing in juvenile court, a judge must consider whether the child should be placed in a secure facility for both her safety and the community’s safety. The typical response that a judge receives to such an inquiry is that there are no secure placements available for a juvenile female in Connecticut. Availability at the one secure facility in the state for girls is virtually nonexistent. (It has only 13 beds.) All the other facilities for girls are “staff secured,” meaning that if a girl leaves, the staff would be required to call the police while watching her drive away in a pimp’s car.
Appreciating the seriousness of this problem, the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, Joette Katz, has proposed the construction of a secure, 10- to 12-bed residential treatment facility in Middletown costing $3.5 million. My reaction is that many jurists would question whether such a facility is large enough to address the problem, but amazingly Commissioner Katz’s proposal has been criticized by some who question whether there is even a need for a secure facility for juvenile girls.
I am not a “child advocate,” a policy-maker or a therapist. I am just a judge charged to make decisions in a child’s best interests.
Nevertheless, it does not appear that the appropriate focus or attention should be on whether there is a need for a secure facility for juvenile girls, but on what programs are provided in such a facility to ensure that the residents are best served. The key issue is not that the door is locked, but what is happening behind the locked door. We already have teenage girls absconding from supervision and returning raped and abused.
My fear is that the appropriate focus will be achieved only when a girl absconds and is not found — or is found dead.