A state investigation that uncovered improper use of restraint and seclusion at Connecticut’s juvenile correction facilities left out one important element, front line staff members say: their voices.
“We cannot and will not be portrayed as the enemy or the abuser of the young people we are dedicated to helping and healing,” says Suzanne Borner, a teacher at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School for boys in Middletown.
“We ask you to remember that every story has another side, and a whole lot more context. Please hear ours,” said George Register, a youth service officer of eight years.
For example, consider the story of Jennie.
A video of her being violently tackled from behind in a hallway was among those made public by the Office of the Child Advocate and became a centerpiece of the investigation‘s condemnation the juvenile facilities’ practices. Jennie had refused to return to her cell in the Pueblo Unit, the secure facility for girls.
“What people don’t realize is that back in July there was a huge riot where every single resident in the facility at the Pueblo Unit was involved. There were staff assaults. There were youth assaults. And there was mass destruction on an entire floor of the facility because the fire system was pulled,” said Sarah Lewok, a youth service officer of 13 years. A fight involving four girls happened the night before the incident with Jennie.
“The staff that were still working were under the directive to make sure that they could keep the residents contained, but they still had to have some of their needs met where the kids would have to come out to use the bathroom,” said Lewok.
And when Jennie was let out and refused to be locked up in her room again, staff decided they would physically escort her back into her room.
“She did have to get secure and get placed back to where she needed to be in order to keep the unit secure,” said Lewok.
Jennie and a male youth service officer were injured in the incident. Last year, 160 staff were injured restraining youth at the state-run jails costing the state nearly $1 million in medical bills or lost time from work, reports the Department of Administrative Services.
The staff’s response to noncompliance of youth in their custody has been the center of debate among mental health experts and state legislators after the release of the Jennie video and seven others showing youth being violently restrained and dragged into seclusion.
Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate, points to state law which only permits restraint or seclusion when there is an imminent risk of injury to the child in custody or others.
“That’s not really what happened here. What we had here was a youth standing in the common area and who didn’t want to go to her room which does not necessitate the type of intervention we see here,” she explained during a webinar when releasing the videos last month.
“The fact that they see restraint and seclusion as the only response to the fight the night before is telling,” she said Friday. “They didn’t even have a clinician present. Everyone is such a danger, but they didn’t have a clinician there to help.”
In her 68-page investigation, she documents dozens of stories of youths being restrained or put into solitary confinement for extended periods of time for not following orders.
Frontline staff members counter that they are unfairly being demonized, that the videos are being taken out of context and that they are just following the training they have received to deal with what they describe as a dangerous population.
“Many of our residents are the size of full-grown adults. They are big kids with developmental temperaments of teenagers and oftentimes toddlers. Whatever their history, their diagnosis, no matter how strong our relationships with them, each and every one of our youth at CJTS at any given moment can become aggressive and violent. Each and every one of them is inherently an imminent risk to themselves and other residents and staff,” explained Peter Maylor, a youth service officer of nine years.
The primary crimes that result in incarceration for youths are mostly nonviolent offenses such as larceny or drug possession, according to the 2014 annual report of CJTS. The training school and Pueblo Unit house youth who commit crimes not serious enough to warrant handling them in the adult corrections system. Last year, 163 boys and girls under age 18 were incarcerated in adult prisons run by the Connecticut Department of Correction.
But several mental health experts said after reviewing the videos that the way the youth are handled might actually be contributing to the volatile environment.
Dr. Julian Ford, a psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center, said the videos “show adults using force and coercion in ways that worsen — or actually create — conflict by provoking and escalating youths’ stress reactions.”
Staff members say they are just using the training they have received.
“In order for YSOs to do their work safely and effectively, we need more support from our agency. We need training moments, not ‘Gotcha’ moments. We are striving to do the best we can,” said Register.
“You don’t hear about all the times that staff are talking to kids, building relationships. There are a 1,000 times a day things are deescalated as a result of relations,” said Paula Dillon, a teacher at CJTS.
Staff members explained to reporters last week at their union hall in New Britain what preceded the incidents on the videos and shared stories of the good work that takes place inside the facilities. The unionized mental health professionals that work at the correction centers did not attend the event and have not yet publicly spoken.
With the release of the videos and the sudden changes that have been made by top officials at DCF and the public spotlight on them, they say it is hard for them to do their jobs.
“Right now our structure is compromised. Our safety is compromised and security is compromised and we are just doing our best to hold it together,” said Lewok. “It is very difficult for our managers to know what to tell us. The direction that we are headed in and what to do a lot of the YSOs and staff in general are unclear what their role is. They’re doing their best to use the training.”
DCF officials have said they are working to train staff on trauma-informed best practices that refrain from using restraints and seclusion.
“The men and women working at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and the Pueblo Girls Unit have extremely demanding jobs,” said DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt “The quality of these programs depends on our staff, so it is the department’s responsibility to provide them with our fullest support… We are committed to reducing the use of restraints whenever possible because we are convinced that will be better for youth and safer for staff. We thank our staff at these programs for the hard work and dedication that they bring every day as they care for these youth. We know how difficult their jobs are and will do everything possible to support the staff in helping the youth. This includes reducing physical interventions.”
Asked if any of the incidents on the videos on the tapes were problematic, staff members who met with reporters last week said no.
“Those videos just portrayed us in that one moment. It just looks like people ganging up on kids and restraining them. It never goes like that. There is a great deal of counseling that goes on before anything happens physically with youth,” said James Corey, a youth service officer of nine years.
Frontline staff described the hours of talking with youngsters about their problems and the “watch sheets” that show staff checking in on he children when they are in seclusion.
“There’s staff right outside the doors, watching and checking on them,” said Lewok.
While she respects their perspective, Eagan said, her investigation revealed that the staff relies too heavily on restraint and closed-door seclusion as opposed to therapeutic interventions and that the agency was unwilling to investigate her concerns.
“These issues are not created by staff and are not unique to Connecticut, but rather can be found in juvenile prisons around the country,” she said. “The videos depict common protocols and procedures in the facility and the additional harms that come to youth and staff through depicted interventions.”
In the case of Jennie’s handling, DCF officials have also concluded that their personnel acted improperly, though no staff members have been disciplined for their conduct. Jennie ultimately injured herself after the incident and was hospitalized.
“We recognized immediately that that was not the best way to handle that situation and that was the finding of our own internal review,” Kristy Ramsey, the assistant superintendent of the facility told state legislators two days after the release of the videos.
So far, the legislative hearings about CJTS have included testimony from DCF officials and mental health experts. No hearings have taken place where the public has had a chance to testify, though top legislators have said they plan to hold one.