The state Department of Children and Families unveiled plans Monday to reduce the use of restraints and seclusion and expand clinical staffing and counseling at the state’s juvenile jails.
The action plan comes on the heels of a 67-page report from the state’s Office of the Child Advocate that found that the juvenile jails run by DCF had imposed dozens of “unlawful” restraints during the last fiscal year.
That investigation found that youthful offenders at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School for boys and at the Pueblo Unit for girls were physically restrained 532 times in the year ending June 30. One-quarter of youths at the facilities in any given month were restrained.
The child advocate, Sarah Eagan, said her office’s investigation showed that conditions in the juvenile jails “place many youth at risk of physical and emotional harm.”
In another recently released report, a national juvenile justice and mental health expert found that Connecticut had made significant progress over the past decade improving conditions for juvenile offenders. But the expert, Dr. Robert Kinscherff, also questioned the adequacy of mental health services provided for at-risk youths at CJTS and outside the jail.
The new plan eliminates the use of prone restraints. It also phases out the use of mechanical restraints over the next six months, except when a youth is being transported across campus.
Other action steps involving the use of restraints and seclusion include:
- Developing individual case plans that focus on ways to avoid restraint and seclusion;
- Ensuring a clinical presence during every restraint to document that the youth was a danger to self or others;
- Requiring counseling sessions during periods of seclusion;
- Requiring clinical approval and documentation when seclusion is used to establish it is necessary to prevent harm. This must be reassessed on an hourly basis;
- Eliminating seclusions that last more than four hours. If it remains necessary because of danger to self or others, the youth must receive a medical evaluation.
“Our staff want to improve how they provide care and treatment for these youths, so these action steps are welcome changes to improve clinical treatment and avoid the crisis interventions that detract from the therapeutic environment the youth require,” DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said. “As Dr. Kinscherff makes clear, we have taken strides toward establishing a rehabilitative and therapeutic model to helping these youths. But we also must do better to treat the trauma that drives the difficult behaviors for some of the youth.”
The new DCF action plan also includes measures designed to improve clinical treatment, and to enhance safety and supervision. These include:
- Expanding clinical staffing to include a second shift after school and in the evening, when many crises occur;
- Identifying traumas that children have experienced to develop better clinical responses;
- Using clinical experts to train staff on providing direct care to youth;
- Asking youth to participate in planning for “safe intervention” practices that are alternatives to seclusion or restraint;
- Working with a clinical expert to assess both the facilities and the clinical responses to prevent suicides;
- Using multi-disciplinary teams to improve care for youths who present suicidal gestures or who have been subjected to restraints or seclusions three or more times;
- Calling supervisors to be present when youths are restrained;
- Increasing the time supervisors must spend in the units;
- Improving data collection and reporting procedures and requiring more reviews of reports of abuse and neglect;
- Sharing all grievances filed by residents with the Office of the Child Advocate.
Some of these action items were implemented immediately. Most will be done between now and Nov. 1, according to a department schedule.
“This is challenging for our staff because there is much change that has to happen quickly,” Katz said, adding that DCF “has many partners in this work, including legislators, advocates, the legal and law enforcement community, and clinical service providers.”
Eagan said Monday that “it will be critical for the state to support its remediation effort with outside expertise and audits of progress.”
The Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) “also stresses the importance and benefit of ongoing transparency and oversight of publicly funded programs for children such as CJTS and Pueblo,” Eagan added. “Finally while OCA welcomes and appreciates a comprehensive approach to harm reduction at CJTS and Pueblo we respectfully assert that concurrent to this effort, stakeholders consider alternatives to CJTS and Pueblo as part of Connecticut’s juvenile justice and criminal justice reform efforts.”
The Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, an advocacy group for at-risk youths, praised the DCF action plan, but also called for it to be an interim measure ultimately to be replaced with the closure of the training school.
“The overwhelming majority of kids at CJTS and Pueblo have profound histories of trauma and often serious mental illness. Prison won’t make them better,” said alliance co-chair Robert Francis. “While it is encouraging to see DCF take steps to improve safety, this plan should only be a short-term solution.”
“We absolutely must change practice immediately at CJTS to protect the youth confined there,” said Lara Herscovitch, acting director of the alliance. “But we must also recognize that CJTS has been ‘fixed’ many times before. It does not stay fixed, because it is based on a flawed model. Youth prisons simply do not work.”