At the end of a grueling three-hour hearing on Aug. 21, state Rep. Toni Walker, chair of Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, laid the issue on the table.

Referring to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, Connecticut’s only state-run youth corrections facility for boys, she asked, “The real question is, does Connecticut need CJTS? [Does the facility provide] the level of care that we really require in this state? Is CJTS the best method of delivering the needs for that population?”

These questions are being hotly debated in Connecticut thanks to new revelations of a rash of suicide attempts and pervasive use of physical restraints and seclusion, both at CJTS and in the small Pueblo unit that opened nearby last year to serve troubled girls.

The controversy has pitted advocates and some legislators who believe the training school and Pueblo unit should be shuttered against the state’sDepartment of Children and Families, which operates the facilities and argues that the problems are being addressed and that the facilities offer state-of-the-art therapeutic care.

This conflict is playing out amid an escalating national debate over both the proper role for incarceration in an enlightened and effective juvenile justice system, and the increasingly fraught question of how best to ensure safety and maximize the effectiveness of facilities that confine and seek to rehabilitate serious youth offenders.

As a result, Connecticut is shaping up as a pivotal test case to gauge whether the current momentum for change will trigger a fundamental pivot in the U.S. approach to juvenile justice — a shift away from incarceration as the system’s signature feature — or if states will instead kick the can down the road and settle for more modest (and likely short-lived) reforms while retaining their century-old affinity for locking kids up in penal institutions.

Growing momentum to scrap ‘juvenile prisons’

In a TED talk two months ago, Annie E. Casey Foundation President Patrick McCarthy threw a rhetorical grenade into the nation’s juvenile justice policy debate, calling for the closure of all large conventional juvenile corrections institutions or, as McCarthy called them, “youth prisons.”

McCarthy, who headed Delaware’s juvenile corrections agency two decades ago, cited the terrible track record of traditional youth corrections facilities before and since. He labeled these institutions “factories of failure.”

On the day of McCarthy’s TED talk, the Casey Foundation released a report documenting the continuing epidemic of abuse and maltreatment in state juvenile corrections facilities nationwide. The report, which I wrote, followed up on a 2011 study, “No Place for Kids,” which laid out the voluminous evidence showing that the United States’ continued heavy reliance on juvenile prisons — unique in the advanced world — is a losing strategy. “No Place for Kids” found that these facilities are dangerous, ineffective, unnecessary, obsolete, wasteful and inadequate.

The new publication, “Maltreatment of Youth in U.S. Juvenile Correctional Facilities: An Update,” looked only at the first of these problems — the dangers faced by incarcerated youth — and the findings were stark. Whereas “No Place for Kids” documented chronic violence, excessive use of isolation and/or restraints, or rampant sexual abuse in 22 states from 2000 to 2011, the new study identified these types of “systemic or recurring maltreatment” in seven more states from 2011 to 2015. The new report also identified continuing or renewed maltreatment in many of the states where problems had already been documented as of 2011, and it found suggestive evidence but no proof of pervasive maltreatment in several more states.

A continuing stream of maltreatment revelations

Since the maltreatment report came out, the drumbeat of maltreatment revelations has continued.

In Nebraska, new data showed continuing overuse of solitary confinement. In Florida, new allegations of riots and abuses have emerged about two state-funded facilities, continuing a torrent of abuse reports that have plagued Florida’s juvenile corrections facilities for more than a century. (See here,here and here for details.) In Arkansas, news reports revealed that more than 800 violent incidents occurred last year in the state’s largest youth corrections facility, which houses about 100 youth, and 176 instances of attempted suicide or self-harm in the first six months of 2015.

But the most eye-opening revelations have come from Connecticut. On July 22, Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate released the findings of an 18-month investigation of CTJS and the Pueblo unit, identifying “urgent safety problems for youth.” Specifically, the Child Advocate discovered at least two dozen acts of attempted suicide or self-injury at CTJS and Pueblo from June 2014 to February 2015. Youth in the facilities were physically restrained 532 times from July 2014 through June 2015, and were placed in shackles or handcuffs 134 times, the Child Advocate also found. Each month, about 30 percent of confined youth were subjected to a physical or mechanical restraint, and about the same number were placed in seclusion (often in a padded isolation cell), the Child Advocate found.

Based on videotape evidence, the Child Advocate reported that facility staff often employ punitive practices inappropriately: violent take-downs of youth who pose no physical threat; mentally ill youth isolated in padded cells; and youth disciplined rather than counseled for self-harm behaviors. The Child Advocate also reported that youth are often secluded for hours at time despite state law permitting restraints and seclusion only to “prevent immediate or imminent injury.”

Nine days before the Child Advocate report, the Department of Children and Families released another study of its juvenile facilities — this one written by Dr. Robert Kinscherff of the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. Kinscherff’s study differed with the Child Advocate’s findings on some issues. Yet even though Kinscherff wrote as a paid consultant to DCF, his report broadly concurred with the Child Advocate and called on DCF to address problems with suicide prevention, use of isolation and restraints, oversight of psychotropic medications and staff responses to misbehaviors by youth with serious mental health problems and/or histories of trauma.

Connecticut seals the case against training schools

Of the many maltreatment scandals to emerge in recent times, Connecticut’s offers perhaps the most compelling evidence that incarcerating youth in large conventional juvenile correctional facilities just isn’t safe. Why? Three reasons.

First, if Connecticut can’t keep juvenile corrections facilities safe, who can? Connecticut is widely regarded as a national leader — perhaps the leader — in effective, caring, progressive and research-driven practice in juvenile justice. As I learned in preparing a 2013 report about Connecticut’s juvenile justice system for the Justice Policy Institute, that reputation is richly deserved.

In a June 2013 study, the Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform concurred, describing Connecticut as “a leader in implementing innovative approaches to juvenile justice.” (Much of that reputation has been earned by the state’s judicial branch, which oversees detention, diversion and juvenile probation operations statewide, whereas DCF handles juvenile correctional facilities and juvenile parole.)

Second, Connecticut has seen this problem before — and not just once. In 1998, following the suicide of a 16-year-old girl at the Long Lane School, Connecticut’s century-old reformatory for delinquent youth, a fatality review panel found “grossly inadequate” staffing, deficient mental health care, flawed suicide prevention, widespread overreliance on seclusion, physical takedowns and mechanical restraint chairs, and the lack of any grievance process to investigate possible abuses.

Then in 2002, a year after the state opened the Connecticut Juvenile Training School to replace Long Lane, Connecticut’s Attorney General and Child Advocate issued a report condemning the new facility as “a dismal failure.” “Suicidal children go unsupervised,” the report found, “and young boys are illegally restrained for days on end.” Two years later, a weekend of violence resulted in 21 youth being restrained and eight staff being hospitalized with injuries. Also, a 2004 public report revealed 119 suicide attempts in the prior year.

By 2012, when I began researching Connecticut’s progress in juvenile justice reform for the Justice Policy Institute, DCF had stabilized the situation in CTJS — or at least the remaining problems inside the facility had escaped notice by outside monitors. The rapid re-emergence of serious maltreatment only adds to the already overwhelming evidence that facilities like CJTS — hardware-secure penal institutions for youth — are inherently prone to abuse.

Third, Connecticut has undertaken herculean efforts, at enormous expense, to make CJTS and the Pueblo facility therapeutic. CTJS clinical director Debra Bond testified that DCF currently employs 25 licensed clinicians at the training school and Pueblo unit to serve a population of less than 80 youth. Within their first hour of arriving at CJTS, youth are screened for suicide risk, trauma and substance abuse, and incoming youth undergo a full psychosocial assessment within 30 days.

CJTS trains its staff in evidence-based models for suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral therapy, trauma-informed care and methods for de-escalating tense situations to minimize restraints and isolation. CJTS also offers vocational training for careers in computer graphics, culinary arts, building trades and print production technology. It houses its own Boys and Girls Club, as well as a football team, soccer club, basketball league and opportunities for swimming, weight lifting, cooking and baking, and music and art therapy.

But despite all these investments, the DCF facilities remain manifestly unsafe. At the recent oversight hearing, officials revealed that DCF has had to place incarcerated youth on suicide watch at least 70 times since January.

Resisting calls for a new approach

Given the alarming current conditions, and the troubling history, it’s no surprise that advocates are pushing for the closure of CJTS and the Pueblo unit. Some are reviving a call — embraced by then-Gov. Jodi Rell from 2005 to 2008 — to replicate the reform approach pioneered by Missouri, which involves replacing large training schools with a network of smaller facilities around the state.

The Missouri model relies on relationships and eyes-on supervision to maintain safety, rather than isolation, restraints and correctional hardware. Through this model Missouri has achieved a far better record than other states both in keeping youth safe — less violence than other states, far less use of isolation and restraints and not a single suicide in 30 years — and in controlling recidivism.

But DCF Commissioner Joette Katz has sternly opposed proposals to close CJTS and Pueblo, and has instead crafted an elaborate corrective action plan to improve operations at the existing facilities. The DCF plan includes dozens of action steps, some of which have been implemented already: prohibiting prone restraints, expanding hours for clinical staff, ensuring clinician input into decisions over use of isolation/restraints and more. These steps come on top of recent reforms initiated by DCF to shorten lengths of stay at CJTS and expand state investments in aftercare and community treatment.

At both the juvenile justice oversight panel and at an Aug. 12 legislativehearing, Katz went out of her way (and employed questionable arguments) to discredit the calls for replacing CJTS and Pueblo with a network of smaller facilities.

Kinscherff, the independent consultant hired by DCF, also threw cold water on the proposal to close CJTS. At the Aug. 12 hearing, he argued that Connecticut has designed “something of a grand experiment” in its plan to transform CJTS from a traditional correctional facility to a new model that combines short periods of incarceration with intensive clinical treatment and other services, followed by a rich array of resources and supports for youth in the community after release.

“I would want to know whether or not this works,” Kinscherff said.

His argument is riddled with holes, however. First, there is little reason to believe that DCF’s new improvement plans for CJTS and Pueblo will make a substantial difference. After all, DCF already provides an extraordinary amalgam of therapeutic services and has for many years. The new changes only tinker at the edges of a rehabilitative scheme that has proven impotent to protect youth from harm or to prevent youth from routinely lapsing into despair so deep that they resort to harming themselves.

“We’ve heard this story before,” says veteran juvenile justice consultant Paul DeMuro, who has been a court expert or facility monitor in dozens of conditions of confinement cases in recent decades. “‘Just give us the time and the resources, and we’ll fix it.’ Only, these large facilities rarely end up getting fixed — and even when they do the improvements are most often temporary.”

DeMuro also questions Connecticut’s faith in mental health treatment as the key to ensuring safety and improving youth outcomes. “I think mental health is important, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing in a facility at all,” he says. “I’m skeptical of the medicalization of delinquency.”

More important than mental health care, Demuro says, is creating a positive culture in the institution, forging warm and trusting relationships between young people and the staff who work with and supervise them day in and day out, and engaging families to craft concrete individualized plans for the aftercare transition. At most, young people spend an hour a day in clinical treatment with a therapist, DeMuro says. “What about the other 23 hours?”

Of course, it remains possible that the DCF plan – the “grand experiment” Kinscherff described – could lead to better results for youth and lower recidivism. The problem is, evaluating that success would require DCF to carefully measure outcomes over time and document progress.

Unfortunately, the agency remains hopelessly ill-prepared to collect these data. Unlike most states, and unlike Connecticut’s Judicial Branch (which oversees youth in probation), DCF lacks any information on the long-term recidivism rates of youth released from its programs and facilities. Indeed, in its otherwise laudatory assessment report on Connecticut in 2013, Georgetown’s Juvenile Justice Reform Center noted that DCF was “able to provide only the most elementary data” and that it “took substantial time and effort to assemble even the most basic information” from DCF. At the recent hearings, DCF staff reported that they were only now beginning to work with other state agencies to forge the data-sharing agreements necessary to track long-term recidivism.

A worrisome tolerance for continued maltreatment

Even if DCF had the capacity to track results, Kinscherff’s suggested approach reflects a worrisome tolerance for continued mistreatment of Connecticut youth. Testing the success of Connecticut’s new model will take “three, five, maybe even 10 years,” Kinscherff said. “Sometimes getting it right beats getting it fast,” he argued.

But youth confined in CTJS and Pueblo are are being subjected to restraints at alarming rates right now, thrown frequently into isolation cells, voicing (and too often acting on) a desire to harm themselves. Can we really afford to wait while DCF undertakes one more effort to prove that a maximum-security facility like CJTS can be reformed?

To be sure, advocates (like me) have not yet spelled out what should take the place of CJTS — and the juvenile training schools and youth prisons operating in other states. And we have not delineated a clear process for how states should go about building safer facilities for their most troubled and dangerous young people.

It is not enough to simply say that facilities should be smaller, or that states should replicate the Missouri model. After all, the Pueblo unit only has 12 beds. And Missouri’s model is idiosyncratic in many respects — not readily transportable to other states.

Yet, given the terrible conditions currently prevailing at CJTS and Pueblo, and given the overwhelming evidence that facilities like them are prone to maltreatment and wholly ineffective, the time has come for juvenile justice leaders in Connecticut and throughout the country to turn a page.

The benefit of the doubt should no longer be granted to correctional agencies like DCF that seek more time and more resources to fix their broken youth prisons. The burden of proof should no longer be on advocates and reformers arguing for closure of abusive facilities and experimentation with new approaches.

As DeMuro sees it, if DCF succeeds in convincing Connecticut’s legislature to keep its facilities open and add even more resources to its already gold-plated youth prison, other states will take notice. “It will quite probably be used as an excuse to hold onto centralized facilities,” he says, “and that concerns me.”

It should concern you, too.

This article was reprinted from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

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