For boys struggling with drug abuse and enmeshed in Connecticut’s juvenile justice system, the New Choices program in Hamden is one of the last chances to intervene to head off incarceration.
Next week, that residential program will close.
It’s just one of the many casualties of state budget cuts to programs that divert youth from pretrial detention, the controversial jail for convicted juveniles in Middletown or, possibly, a hospital emergency room.
“We’re all concerned that there’s not enough substance abuse treatment in Connecticut for children,” said Dr. Brian Keyes, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at New Choices. “The potential lethality is so serious. If there’s not treatment available in the community, then there is going to be more youth being sent to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, or they just won’t receive any treatment at all.”
A long list of budget cuts released by the Connecticut Judicial Branch just before the fiscal year began July 1 has some state legislators, prosecutors, judges and child advocates wondering what they mean for the strategy of keeping the number of incarcerated children at record lows by providing community-based programs.
It also raises questions about who remains in the state’s juvenile justice system and what services will be left to help them.
The Judicial Branch has historically been responsible for operating and overseeing an array of programs aimed at keeping youth from needing to be incarcerated in jails operated by either the Department of Children and Families or the Department of Correction.
Who is left?
The leader of the state Department of Children and Families, which operates the jail for youths convicted of crimes not serious enough to land them in the adult justice system, emailed her staff last month to highlight the behavior of the youths who remain incarcerated.
Her comments came after it was reported that the number of staff members being injured in assaults or while physically restraining residents had shot up despite the record low number of inmates at the jail, the Connecticut Juvenile Training School.
“In one incident, a 17-year-old head-butted one staff member in the nose and head causing a concussion and stomped another in his head and back, also causing a concussion,” wrote Joette Katz, DCF commissioner. “Another youth tore off the two-foot rubber strip from the tack board in his room and proceeded to use it to beat a staff member on the head. Another threw an electric pencil sharpener at a staff member’s head, also causing a concussion.”
“These specific youth are at the high end of the spectrum of offending and delinquent behaviors,” Katz wrote.
Children committed to DCF for breaking the law typically have been in trouble before. Nine in 10 youths put in the custody of DCF last year had at least one previous conviction and half had at least three prior adjudications. And one in eight youths were already in the custody of the Department of Children and Families because it was determined they were being abused or neglected at home.
Youth at the facility are also more likely to be black and Hispanic. Minority youth are incarcerated at higher rates than their white peers convicted of similar offenses, a study commissioned by the state in 2009 found.
“Almost all of these kids are kids of color. Almost all of the kids have a very lengthy history of trauma, abuse and a whole variety of negative factors in their lives that really make it no surprise that they ended up where they are,” said Michael Lawlor, the governor’s criminal justice advisor. “The question is whether there are things that can be done to deal with these extremely traumatized kids that are acting out in very serious ways. Maybe some of them need to be incarcerated, maybe. I don’t think so, but maybe.”
Why are fewer juveniles in jail?
CJTS became mired in controversy after the state’s child advocate released an investigation and surveillance videos showing youths being violently restrained and dragged into seclusion for not following orders. Human rights advocates called the operations at CJTS a “boondoggle.”
But since those videos were released last July, the number of youth living at CJTS, which had been falling, has plummeted, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced plans to close the facility.
So how have so many youths been kept from the deep end of the state’s juvenile justice system?
Data show 2,311 fewer youths were arrested and referred to the state’s juvenile courts in the fiscal year that just ended compared to four years ago – a 19 percent decline. And when cases do come before a judge, far fewer youth are being convicted and committed to DCF, which typically means initially being incarcerated at the training school.
“If they touch our system, the goal is to prevent them from progressing deeper into the system,” said Judge Bernadette Conway, the chief administrative judge for juvenile matters. “After a child has exhausted what we have to offer on our side and in the community, it’s not a good thing, but committing them to DCF is unavoidable.”
This approach to keeping youth out of jail by providing therapy and other services in outpatient or residential programs has helped Connecticut achieve one of the lowest incarceration rates for those under age 18, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
What’s been lost?
Many of those services are now being cut back or eliminated.
A program that helped parents with transportation so they could visit their child in pretrial detention has ended.
Funding has been eliminated for programs that provided about 350 youth each year with a lawyer to help them overcome obstacles to enrolling in school or obtaining the special education services they need. A program that helped 75 youth with vocational training, resume-building and job searches has ended.
Judicial Branch family therapy programs in Rockville and Waterford for youths struggling with substance abuse or antisocial behaviors have closed. And for the outpatient or home-based therapy programs that remain, the number of slots will shrink since the Judicial Branch is cutting funding by 7 percent.
Several residential programs to serve youths for whom outpatient treatment didn’t deter bad behavior are closing, or will close soon.
“We are really very close to the tipping point to provide the services that kids need. We are alarmed and we are watchful,” said Stephen Grant, the executive director of the Judicial Branch division that oversees community-based programs.
Reacting to a $77 million cut in state funding for the fiscal year, the branch has laid off 239 employees and 61 temporary workers. It also has cut $27 million from the community-based programs meant to divert youth from being incarcerated by DCF or adults by the Department of Correction – a 25 percent reduction. The correction department also incarcerates those under age 18 who are convicted of more serious offenses.
“These are our core programs that help us reduce recidivism. These cuts don’t mean there is no need, but what is the role of the Judicial Branch to provide them? Have we just transferred the costs to another system?” asked Grant during an interview.
DCF already is struggling to provide services to delinquent children and children who are in foster care because they were abused or neglected.
In December, agency officials reported that several youths on any given day remain locked up because there is nowhere else for them to go. In January, the federal court monitor reported that one-third of the children in foster care whose cases he reviewed were not getting all the services they require.
In a review of the 52 youth who were living at CJTS last August, the Office of the Child Advocate found that several were not getting the services they needed after they were discharged.
Of the 38 youth who were diagnosed with substance abuse problems, 24 were matched to a substance abuse treatment program upon their departure, two were sent to adult prison, and the remainder were not matched to therapy. At least five of the 25 youths who were matched to a program faced a wait of at least 45 days to receive services, and documentation was missing on whether several others ever were enrolled.
“The connection to substance abuse treatment in the community seems low,” Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate, told agency officials and members of CJTS’s advisory board earlier this month. “If kids aren’t connected, they are going to flounder.”
DCF also reports fewer youth at CJTS are completing a substance abuse program before being released and data shows only 19 percent remain drug free six months after their release.
DCF is expected to present its plan for handling those in its custody after CJTS closes next week to the state panel that oversees juvenile justice.
However, the department is facing a major obstacle: The state budget for the fiscal year that began two weeks ago cuts DCF’s budget by $38.6 million, nearly 5 percent, and the state is facing an even larger fiscal shortfall for the next year.
While laying off just over 100 staff at the juvenile jail will help save a portion of the $20.6 million in cuts to personnel costs the budget calls for, none of the agency’s other budget line items was increased to provide more community programming.
“I would say that expansion should not be in our vocabulary right now. It should be more about evaluation and maybe redirecting [funding]. I don’t expect that expansion is something that we can talk about,” said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, the House chair of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee and co-chair of the panel overseeing juvenile justice.
Despite the overall budget cuts, a spokesman for DCF said that there are no plans to cut funding for residential or community-based programs that serve youth convicted of crimes.
While the decline in youth committed to the agency has helped control costs at CJTS, the agency also has shifted toward having more of its youths in less restrictive, community-based facilities or living at home.
For example, of those in DCF custody for breaking the law in June 2014, 30 percent were living at home compared to 47 percent last month. Those living at CJTS dropped from 44 percent to 17 percent.
Two things are driving this shift.
The commissioner now requires that she sign off before any youth is sent back to CJTS for a violation of parole, and she said she will only readmit them if they commit new serious crimes.
Also, DCF changed its sentencing policies in 2014 and now gives every inmate sent to CJTS either a 6- or 12-month sentence from the day they arrive, though they can be released somewhat earlier or later depending on behavior. The change was made to correct a sentencing system that many felt had become subjective, as well as to respond to research showing that long incarceration times actually increase the chances an inmate will return to jail.
The agency more recently decided to slightly increase the number of spots it will pay for in a less restrictive residential program. The Connecticut Junior Republic in Litchfield now has eight beds reserved for youth diverted from CJTS.
But some are wondering what awaits youth diverted from being incarcerated.
“I am a little bit concerned,” said Francis J. Carino, who oversees juvenile matters in the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney. “A number of existing programs and services are now being discontinued because of financial concerns. At what point are we going to talk about how are we going to expand services that can’t even be maintained at this point?”