Will locking up troubled girls help? State aims to find out with new Middletown facility
The state’s child welfare agency will open a new state-run facility in January to lock up girls who break the law –- a decision that has generated mixed reactions from those who work most closely with these children.
The facility that the Department of Children and Families will open in Middletown at the campus formerly named Riverview Hospital will house 10 to 12 girls on any given day. The plan is to lock up girls for 30 days who agency officials say have a history of running away from other treatment programs, but their confinement could last up to six months.
Bill Rosenbeck, the leader of the adjacent boys’ detention facility — The Connecticut Juvenile Training School — is the point person for opening the facility for girls. He said a locked facility is needed to protect these girls from the problems they get into when they run away.
“We have an obligation to lower a girl’s risk, make her safe and reintegrate her back into the community as a valued member of the community,” Rosenbeck told a roomful of community providers Thursday at the YMCA in Middletown.
Too frequently when girls run away from non-secure facilities they are traumatized further, a judge that oversees these cases in Bridgeport says.
“If a girl leaves, the staff would be required to call the police while watching her drive away in a pimp’s car,” Judge Barry Stevens wrote in an opinion piece in The Mirror shortly after the department first made this proposal in August. “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.”
But some providers wonder if 30 days at this new facility — even while getting treatment — is enough time to deter this urge to run and encourage the girls to forge a lasting relationship with a positive influence they are able to trust.
“The brokenness of them is quite extreme… It cannot be mended in 30 days,” said Elizabeth Fraser, with Middletown Even Start, which helps parents with children in the system get back on their feet. The organization helps them get an education and provides parenting resources, Fraser said during the information session Thursday.
The vice president of the state’s only secure facility for girls agrees that releasing these girls after 30 days would be a challenge.
“I would be concerned about whether they are ready to accept care only a month later,” said David Klein of Natchaug Hospital, which oversees the Journey House center in Mansfield.
Half of the girls on parole in Connecticut in 2009, the most recent year reported, had diagnosed trauma disorders. Those disorders were the result of being abandoned, having an immediate family member sent to jail, being subjected to physical or emotional abuse or witnessing domestic violence.
A national Survey of Youth in Residential Placement reports that 42 percent of girls in state custody for breaking the law have experienced past physical abuse and 35 percent have a history of sexual abuse.
Other advocates question why the state plans to lock up these girls, a traumatizing event in itself, when most of them pose no threat to the community.
“The only girls that should ever be there are the ones at risk to public safety,” said Abby Anderson, the leader of the state’s Juvenile Justice Alliance. She observed that many of these children are foster children.
“It’s DCF’s job to make sure they have the continuum of services in place so that these girls aren’t going to continue to fail. And then finally we say, ‘I don’t know what else to do with you, I am going to lock you up.’ If a parent had a child who was running away and locked them in the basement, we would take that child away from that family…. To say ‘I have to lock a child in one room to get them to stay in one place long enough to accept treatment,’ that’s not in line with evidence-based [treatment]. That’s not in line with best practice.”
Girls in the juvenile court system are serving time for low-level offenses. Those found guilty of serious offenses like murder are handled by the adult criminal justice system.
Not a prison, a treatment center
The existing office building to be used for the girls will be fitted with secure glass, a fence, safe bedrooms and other housing needs over the next two months. It overlooks the Connecticut River Valley in Middletown. The department plans to spend up to $430,000 making the necessary alterations.
The people who will work to help these girls will be trained therapeutic professionals.
“These girls are going to get the behavioral health treatment they need… It is not a prison. Prisons are easy to run, they are much easier to run — we all know that. You just put them in, lock the door and be done. That is not at all what this model is about,” DCF Commissioner Joette Katz told the group. “The intent for this is to be a brief, short stint, intensive treatment and then return them to wherever they need to go to ensure their safety… My responsibility first and foremost is to these girls.”
The state has a handful of residential treatment programs for girls who break the law, but Rosenbeck said judges are asking for secure placements and the lone locked facility in the state — Journey House — constantly has a waiting list.
“It’s a fact that we are usually full. If we needed someone to get in today, it would be difficult,” said Klein of Journey House’s 14 beds.
But advocates say that children are languishing in these treatment programs or face delays in being discharged back home or to less-restrictive care, which puts the whole system in gridlock.
“To find that appropriate placement, it’s not easy at all. Girls are waiting,” said James Connolly, the director of the post-conviction unit for juvenile offenders at the state’s public defender’s office. His office represents 85 percent of these girls who end up being committed to the state.
The Judicial Branch reports that the average amount of time a child spends in a pretrial-detention facility awaiting placement after she has been convicted or pleaded guilty is 33 days. It was unable to provide details because of privacy issues if children remain incarcerated because there is not suitable placement for them.
The state reports that the average length of stay at the state’s three privately run residential facilities for girls hovers around eight or nine months.
“There’s not a tremendous amount of services for juvenile justice kids,” Klein said, pointing out that housing is sometimes a barrier for children to exit Journey House. “There are a limited number of options.”
It’s something a spokesman for the agency agrees the agency could do better at.
“Are there always enough in every area of need? No. But we recognize the need to continue to develop these services. We think we have improved upon and we need to continue to improve upon this,” said Gary Kleeblatt of DCF.
Some providers and local residents are willing to give the plan to open the new locked facility a chance.
“There is a population of girls who need a different level of care,” said Terri DiPietro, the director of outpatient behavioral health for Middlesex Hospital. She would not support lengthy stays at the facility.
And if this approach ends up reducing the number of children who run away or end up breaking the law again, then it’s worth replicating, said Patti Vassia, a community advocate and the past president of a community foundation in Middletown.
“If that model works, it would be a sin not to replicate it… If it proves to be a successful model, why wouldn’t we look at expansion in the future?” she asked.
Connolly, with the public defenders office, said the state has not done any research during his 12-year tenure to determine if locked facilities lead to better outcomes, including lower recidivism rates or fewer instances of girls running away when they leave the locked facility.
“We really don’t know how effective these programs have been historically,” he said.
The state has been without a state-run secure girls’ detention facility since 2003, when Long Lane was closed after the suicide of an inmate there and the documentation of severe problems by the state’s attorney general and child advocate at the time.
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