Presented with the opportunity to leave the locked jail for juvenile boys, two offenders in recent weeks had a surprising request.
They wanted to continue their stay at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School until they earned their high school diplomas.
“They hold that their chances of achieving these goals at CJTS are much better than if returned to their communities,” said Robert Kinscherff, a national juvenile justice expert who released an evaluation recently of Connecticut’s locked facilities for young offenders after spending months assessing them. They “believe that they could complete high school successfully while at CJTS but would fail if returned to their communities.”
The anecdote and Kinscherff’s report highlight the successes of a juvenile justice system in Connecticut that incarcerates fewer youth than 10 years ago, but they also raise questions about the adequacy of mental health services provided for at-risk youths both at CJTS and outside of jail.
Three different entities have been simultaneously investigating these same questions after several controversies last year, including the state’s decision to open a new jail to house girls, disclosure of the living conditions of an incarcerated transgender girl, and reports that inmates were physically restrained or secluded hundreds of times over a 13-week period.
Besides Kinscherff, investigators include the state’s child advocate and a legislative committee. Researchers at Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform also reported last year that children were locked up at CJTS too frequently and for too long, just as incarceration at CJTS reached a 10-year high.
Decreasing the number of incarcerated youth
State officials and advocates agree that locking up young offenders should be avoided, as research shows incarceration in other states has been counterproductive.
“Admission of a youth into a hardware-secure facility should be presumptively viewed as a systems failure,” Kinscherff wrote in his 52-page assessment. Kinscherff is 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.
The Connecticut Department of Children and Families has implemented numerous changes aimed at reducing the number of incarcerated youth, and the number is now at an all-time low of 74 boys.
Among the changes:
- DCF Commissioner Joette Katz now reviews every case of a young offender e parole who is having difficulty on the outside before allowing admission to a locked facility. Half of the boys that entered CJTS in 2013 were sent either from a group home where they were living or for violating parole while at home. The other half were newly convicted youths committed to DCF by the courts.
- Every inmate sent to CJTS is now given either a 6- or 12-month sentence from the day they arrive, though they can be released earlier or later depending on behavior. Before this policy was implemented, youth could be at the facility for months before it was determined when they would be discharged. The change — made to correct a sentencing system that many felt had become subjective — was applauded in Kinscherff’s assessment. “From a national perspective, this length of stay protocol is a bold experiment,” he wrote.
- In an effort to avoid readmissions to CJTS, responsibility for overseeing those released now falls to DCF’s regional offices. This is “seen as an effort to make regions more accountable for these youth,” Kinscherff reported. The rationale is “that the juvenile justice population has historically received insufficient attention and programming in regions since they comprise only 3 percent of the DCF caseload.” The department is also responsible for foster children that were abused or neglected by their parents.
Given the clear goal of avoiding incarceration, Kinscherff questions whether having a large corrections facility for boys is appropriate.
“Connecticut has apparently made the policy decision that it will maintain a centralized juvenile incarceration facility rather than relying on smaller, regional incarceration units,” Kinscherff wrote. “If CJTS is to become a short-term stabilization facility rather than a longer-term facility for educational, vocational, clinical and/or social rehabilitation, then it may make sense to create regional facilities which allow for greater family involvement and planning for community re-integration.”
“That’s a model we have been pushing for,” said Martha Stone, the leader of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, who won a class-action lawsuit in 1997 that forced the state to improve how youths in pre-adjudication detention are treated. “When you have a large facility in Middletown, the families of these children [who don’t live nearby] don’t get there to visit.”
Kinscherff, who reviewed CJTS and recommended closing it in 2004 after disturbances among inmates, also questions the amount of money being spent on a neighboring locked unit for girls called the Pueblo Unit, estimated at $2.6 million per year when the facility opened last spring. That facility employs numerous full-time employees and typically houses four girls on any given day, but there have been periods where only one girl was there.
“DCF is to be acknowledged for avoiding an ‘if you build it, they will come’ press to fill empty beds,” he writes, but adds, “I raise the issue of the resources committed to this girl’s locked unit to ask the question whether or not other alternatives to admission to Pueblo Unit might have been successful if fiscal or other resources had been available.”
Of the $179.4 million the state was expecting to spend on the juvenile justice system in the 2014-15 fiscal year — divided between the Judicial Branch and DCF functions — nearly $50 million was to be spent incarcerating youth while they awaited trial or after they were convicted, DCF reports.
Evaluating mental health problems
With 34 percent of youth at CJTS having “significant mental heath disorders” and about 90 percent having two or more psychiatric diagnoses, Kinscherff recommends the state figure out why certain youths are ending up in jail instead of in a mental health facility.
“What are the broader systems operations which lead one group of high need/high risk youth to enter the deep end of public mental health care and another group to enter the deep end of juvenile corrections?” he asked. “Can a reliable protocol for prompt transfer to a psychiatric facility be implemented, and is there a means by which a youth with ongoing significant psychiatric care needs can be readily transferred to the metal health system for services rather than the juvenile justice system.”
The protocol Kinscherff proposes relies on services being available and having a provider that will accept these youth.
“…In practice community-based providers are reportedly reluctant to engage youth with juvenile justice involvement, and African-American males are particularly difficult to get accepted by providers,” Kinscherff wrote, though he noted that community programs for juvenile offenders have expanded over the last 10 years.
Almost half of the boys sent to CJTS last year were black, or 109 of the 222 offenders admitted to the locked facility.
Experts say it is imperative that the state be able to determine if a youth is a risk to the public and what their needs are when determining whether incarceration is necessary. But Kinscherff reports that DCF does not have validated tools to determine risk or need. Researchers at Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform reported the same thing in June 2013.
After the release of Kinscherff’s report, DCF said it is working to develop new tools to better assess both a child’s needs and risk by later this year.
“Working together as an entire state, we have made significant progress — and now we must work for even more because vulnerable youth are counting on us,” Katz said last week when announcing the anticipated changes.
Figuring out what’s working
Another big, open questions is what happens to children after they leave CJTS and eventually DCF custody.
Do they end up finishing high school? Are they homeless? Do those with mental health needs end up in an emergency room in crisis? Do they end up breaking the law and going to jail again? Are they still alive 12 months later?
The department doesn’t track what happens to youths after they exit custody.
This uncertainty has fueled debate and criticism about whether the locked facility is working in rehabilitating youth.
“We want to know: is CJTS effective? We still don’t know,” said Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate who runs the state office that acts as a watchdog over DCF.
Kinscherff’s report does not provide an answer.
He points out that CJTS is “exceptionally well-resourced” and the mental health services available to incarcerated youth are “enviable from a national perspective.”
But, he adds, there has been no validation that the facility is a success, and the way the state collects and organizes data is “a mess”
“It is striking how lack of readily accessible data — or clarity and consensus regarding what is reliable or relevant data — complicated comnuiccations and collaboration between CJTS and Pueblo Unit administrators and external organizations or advocates,” he wrote. “Persons interviewed from DCF and from external entities pointed to disagreements about data as evidence that one or the other were “misusing,” “misrepresenting,” “spinning,” or withholding data. [This] disagreement reflects the currently strained and mistrustful relationships among some parties.”
Advocates declined to comment on their relations with they department, except to say that having a certain level of tension is natural.
“But that should not preclude consensus-driven reform,” said Eagan.
After release of Kinscherff’s report, DCF announced it intends to create a so-called “data dashboard” to regularly track progress on key benchmarks — a move Kinscherff recommended.
Information will include the demographics of young offenders in DCF custody, including those incarcerated and those in the community, an agency spokesman said. It’s unclear when this dashboard will be up and running and available to the public.
Kinscherff recommends the dashboard also show CJTS’s recidivism rates over three years, whether youths in the foster care system are entering the juvenile justice system, and the educational outcomes for juvenile offenders.
Some legislators, particularly Republicans, are anxious for DCF to make changes.
“While Commissioner Katz came into office in 2011 promising dramatic improvement in DCF’s care and programs for children, the reality is that, over four years later, DCF has regressed under her leadership and is failing to meet the needs of our children by a greater degree than ever,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. “I’m happy to see the commissioner acknowledging the need for reforms in DCF’s locked facilities. However, I find it difficult to believe Commissioner Katz is fully committed after she flat-out rejected many proposed reforms this legislative session as well as a past study that made many recommendations to improve these same facilities.”
Improving conditions of confinement
Advocates also have raised questions about overuse of restraints and seclusion to control misbehaving inmates at CJTS. They question whether youths are physically restrained or handcuffed too frequently or put in seclusion rooms for too long. They have asked if appropriate precautions are taken to keep youths from hurting themselves or trying to commit suicide?
Last summer, the Office of the Child Advocate, after reviewing surveillance videos and incident reports, said restraint and seclusion were being used on more than those occasions when inmates’ behavior posed a risk to themselves or others.
“It was used inappropriately on many, many occasions, our investigation found,” Eagan said last week.
Her office — which has the authority to review information not available to the public — plans to release a report in the coming weeks on the conditions of incarceration at CJTS.
State legislators have also created a Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee that is tasked with reviewing conditions of confinement at locked facilities. The University of New Haven’s Tow Youth Justice Institute is conducting that review and expects to release its finding this winter.
Last year, 20 percent of youth incarcerated at CJTS were restrained or secluded at some point. A small group of inmates were involved in a large number of incidents, and a high number of incidents happened on the second shift, when no mental health professionals are working, Kinscherff reports. Behavior sometimes escalated to the point where 44 youths were arrested.
Kinscherff — who was paid $40,000 to review the locked facilities — said DCF should make some policy changes and work to change staff culture about using these methods.
One of DCF’s goals is to employ a so-called “trauma-informed model” in dealing with youths who experienced abuse or adversity in early life.
“In a trauma-informed model,” Kinscherff wrote, “the need to use restraint or seclusion is viewed as a clear intervention failure…Genuinely concerning information has been produced about specific cases regarding seclusion duration, responses to distressed youth and supervision of youth during seclusion.”
Trauma-informed practice “does not appear to be an overarching vision” in the culture at CJTS or “integrated into an overarching treatment model,” Kinscherff wrote. When youth are secluded in locked rooms, mental health staff are “largely limited to quick mental status assessments rather than active access and engagement,” he reported.
- Creating a protocol to identify youths who are failing to stabilize and are misbehaving in jail.
- Notifying senior DCF leaders when a youth is restrained multiple times or secluded for more than a certain time. DCF said a working group is developing criteria for when to notify senior officials.
- Considering use of “comfort rooms,” common in psychiatric settings, for use with youth who are beginning to show difficulties.
- Providing adequate coverage by mental health staff on second shifts and weekends. All mental health staff are currently assigned to first shift, which ends at 5 p.m., and are “on call” for emergencies. Kinscherff said DCF had told him that some staff have agreed to come in later and stay until 6 p.m. and that CJTS is “considering shift changes” to put two clinicians on-site until 8 or 9 p.m.
- Trying non-traditional therapies for youths who have significant histories of trauma rather than focusing on talk therapies. “Emerging research increasingly shows that interventions such as mindfulness exercises, yoga, routine exercise, music and art therapy, and other interventions which do not require verbalizing the trauma explicitly can have positive impact, especially on emotional self-regulation,” Kinscherff wrote. Stone, the attorney that represents incarcerated youth, agrees. “By the time they get to CJTS, they have been talked to death.”
- Involving mental health professionals in managing behaviors that have led to restraint and seclusion. Interviews suggest “clinicians have a relatively limited role when a youth is on room restriction or in seclusion…If accurate, reconsideration and retraining is recommended regarding the role of clinicians during crisis,” Kinscherff wrote.
- Retaining a consultant to conduct a “state of progress” review of facility operations.
- Notifying the attorneys of incarcerated youths about grievances their clients have filed against staff. Some public defenders have complained they are not privy to the investigation or review of their clients’ complaints. Kinscherff said DCF has told him it has changed its practice so that public defenders and the child advocate receive filed grievances.
In response to the report, Katz has promised to continue making changes to create a more therapeutic environment in the locked facilities.
Katz points to the youth that are asking to extend their stay at CJTS as proof that the facility is meeting children’s needs.
“The fact that some boys want to remain at CJTS shows how much staff have enhanced the rehabilitative and therapeutic components of the program — in stark contrast to a correctional model where youth would be expected to way to leave as soon as possible,” the department reported.
Those boys were allowed to stay the extra weeks they needed and completed their high school diplomas.