Controversy surrounds closure of juvenile prison
The state’s lone prison for young males convicted of offenses not serious enough to land them in an adult prison last week took in what is expected to be its last admission as the state moves forward with plans to shutter the Connecticut Juvenile Training School by July. Over the next several months, the 39 youths incarcerated at the maximum-security facility will be released to their families or sent elsewhere.
The decision by the Department of Children and Families to cease all admissions Jan. 1 is causing a deep rift between the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislative leaders from both parties, and concerns from various stakeholders about what will happen without a locked facility for juvenile offenders.
The governor announced two years ago that he planned to close the facility in July 2018. The decision came after mental health experts and human rights advocates decried the operation of the facility after videos showing the use of restraint and seclusion inside the facility were released. Reports from national experts also outlined problems.
“We know we’re closing. That’s what everybody wanted for years and years and years,” Joette Katz, the commissioner of the DCF said during an interview Friday. “So we knew and said we were closing. And so now this idea of, ‘Oh my God, she’s serious.’ Well, they told me to close it. So when is the right time? Is March good? Is April good? What’s the magic date?”
“Nobody wants CJTS to stay open past July, but why is it closing now?” a baffled Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance asked during an interview.
Those who work with youths in the state’s juvenile justice system, advocates and two legislative leaders also don’t understand why no alternative secure setting for young boys who will need one was set up before closing CJTS.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The DCF – which operates the juvenile prison – was hoping to partner with non-profits to open five 10-bed, secure facilities throughout the state. Those facilities, while locking residents in, were envisioned to be “as dorm-like as possible,” where family could visit 365 days a year and their children wouldn’t be more than 50 miles away. Youths would be allowed to prepare family-style meals together, and services to help set the youths up for success would be readily available.
Katz said she had three potential providers ready to open such facilities by July at the latest – and then the legislature decided her agency would no longer be responsible for the nearly 300 youths that the courts commit to DCF each year, many of whom are incarcerated at CJTS at some point. Instead, that responsibility is being given to Connecticut’s Judicial Branch, which already oversees an array of programs for roughly 9,800 youths identified by the Juvenile Branch as needing certain services or who have been convicted of crimes not serious enough to place them in DCF custody.
The Judicial Branch’s handling of juvenile justice has in recent years been seen as a national model, while DCF’s system has been mired in controversy. State legislators have also grown increasingly frustrated with the limited data and information that DCF has been able to provide about CJTS and programming once youths are released, including recidivism rates.
Once the legislature passed the shift in responsibility with bipartisan support, Katz decided not to proceed and to turn over information on the interested providers to the Judicial Branch.
“We’re out of this business now,” she said.
The court system won’t be ready to open secure facilities of its own for some time and is seeking providers independently. Replies to requests for proposals probably will be due in March.
“We are in the process of building that network that will be required after July,” said Gary Roberge, the acting executive director of the branch’s Court Support Services Division, which will oversee the care of these youths. “Many of the services that we will require will be in place or shortly thereafter.”
Judge Bernadette Conway, the chief administrative judge for juvenile matters, recently explained in a memo the challenges facing the Judicial Branch.
“Enlarging the range and scope of staff secure treatment beds for kids on probation in doable, given sufficient time and resources,” she wrote. “The timing is not ideal… Capacity and who is vested with the discretion to place and move children through the system are obviously critical issues.”
Some are questioning the timing of the commissioner’s announcement that she would be closing new admissions. It came on Nov. 7, a week and a half after the General Assembly voted on the shift, which was seen as an expression of no confidence in the agency’s handling of juvenile justice.
“I just can’t wrap my head around that time frame,” Senate Republican leader Len Fasano told the state’s juvenile justice advisory panel two weeks ago. “January just seems to me presumptuous. I would argue alternative motives to jump in on Jan. 1 – and that’s what bothers me.”
At the same meeting Rep. Toni Walker, the House chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, directed her concerns to DCF officials in the room.
“I want to reemphasize that I hope the commissioner will rethink the idea of closing everything Jan. 1 because that would put us into another tailspin about how we will address these transitions,” said Walker, D-New Haven. “Closing CJTS at this point in time puts 50 children back into a system that we’re [still] trying to build. So we ask that it be a cooperative transition. The thing that we are asking is that no lines be drawn, that everybody be cooperative.”
After hearing the concerns, Ben Barnes, the Democratic governor’s budget and policy chief, was unwavering that admissions be cut off now.
“We at the department, the administration, the legislature and I think this committee don’t belive that confinement in a repurposed maximum security prison is approporoiate treatment of children,” he said. “Yes, it’s going to be a little inconvenient, but keeping CJTS functioning a little bit longer, unless we are saying we are going to keep running it forever [or] for the foreseeable future, we need to stop letting kids in there if we are going to shut it down.”
The legislature is planning to convene later this week to reverse cuts to the Medicare Savings Program. It is unclear if it will address the concerns surrounding the closing of admissions to the juvenile prison.
The Malloy administration says closing admission Jan. 1 makes sense for the kids and has been the plan all along, regardless of the legislature’s action.
“They didn’t ask my opinion when they did this, and they are sure as hell not asking my opinion now,” said Katz.
During an hour-long interview with The Connecticut Mirror, Katz and Linda Dixon, who oversees juvenile justice programming at the agency, explained the reasoning.
“This is not an assembly line. Kids need to be thoughtfully treated and discharged,” said Dixon.
Katz explains it with this metaphor: Kids at CJTS are are put on a six-month dose of “antibiotics” to make strides in treating issues surrounding their mental health, substance abuse, fractured relationships with their families and other obstacles that make their return to the community fragile.
“You don’t just cut off the antibiotics at two months,” she explained. “I don’t think people really get what it takes to close a facility and transition kids safely. The idea that we were going to drive around June 30th or something with a bus and just load kids up and drop them around the state, I mean there’s a lot that goes into closing a facility and planning around the youth.”
And then there are staffing challenges.
Given that the facility is closing, morale is down and staff are leaving at faster rates than usual as they find new jobs, said DCF officials.
“It has been our experience that when a facility is closing it is not in the best interest of children to admit new children. The environment is confusing, people are anxious, and it’s not a good environment for children to be in,” said Dixon.
And Katz said she refuses to hire short-term staff, who don’t know the kids or have not been properly trained, to fill the void. Rather, it makes more sense to find alternative high-quality placements.
“We have to face the staffing realities in terms of closing a facility,” said Katz.
What’s the alternative?
Judicial Branch won’t be ready for some time to begin housing convicted boys in locked settings. The branch does have two high-security facilities to house youths while their charges are pending before juvenile court, but those are only meant for short stays.
In its solicitation to nonprofit providers that may be interested in opening a secure program, it gave a limited preview: Bedrooms must have at least 35 square feet of space once furnished and have natural light. The facility must have cameras to monitor entrances and perimeters and the capacity to maintain a secure perimeter, with a preference for no-climb, razor-ribbon fencing. There is no mention of therapeutic programming, though Roberge of the Judicial Branch says that will be be included in the model.
“Our goal is to have community-based, geographically located programs across the state in both secure and staff-secure facilities,” said Roberge of the Judicial Branch.
As those details are worked out over the next several months, advocates and legislators worry what is going to happen to youths who need a secure placement in the meantime to keep the community safe and to provide the youths with treatment.
“I think we feel strongly that one of the unintended consequences of this should not be that kids go out of state,” said Martha Stone, the executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, whose clients include those involved in the juvenile justice system.
Currently just two children committed to DCF for breaking the law are living in specialized facilities out of state.
Katz acknowledged there probably will be an increase, but “very few.”
“I am sure between now and July you will see some kids go out of state,” she predicted.
There are also fears that with CJTS closed to new admissions, judges will have no choice but to transfer youths to adult court and the adult corrections system – giving minors a public criminal record.
Katz has requested that judges “please not place our staff in the awkward position of seeking admission after” Jan. 1.
Judge Conway said however that judges should not take into account whether CJTS is open when determining whether to commit youths to the care of DCF. While judges often collaborate with the agency to determine which children are appropriate to go to CJTS, state law leaves placement decisions up to DCF.
“It is the Branch’s position that, until the law changes [July 1], judges, as they continue to deal with daily cases that come before them, should continue to adhere to the law presently in effect, meaning that when appropriate, commit a child to the commissioner’s care and custody, understanding that when and where that child is placed is up to the commissioner,” Conway said.
In the absence of having a secure facility for convicted youths, the concern is that they will then be ordered to participate in the same programs that already have failed to address their problems. Legislators and advocates have been arguing for years that DCF has an insufficient number of programs that too often don’t work.
“Every time I meet with you all, I get a response that I’m not comfortable with,” Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, told the commissioner during a public hearing last year. “I’ll say it again. I’m frustrated with the organization, because I know the people who have been working with children like this all their lives, and every time they come up with a plan or idea, you guys shut them down for one reason or another, and we continue with these ABC organizations that you support, and the results are the same.”
“… I want ammunition. I want something in my pocket where I can go say, ‘Hey family, you need to go over to here tomorrow. They know you. They live in your community. They have a history of success. Go talk to them,'” said McCrory. “I want boots on the ground.”
Not having the services necessary to help youths before their behavior escalates – or after they break the law – is a common frustration among advocates.
There was hope things would change when the number of youth being sent to CJTS began to drastically decline and the administration announced it would close the prison.
Four years ago the facility was costing the state just over $30 million each year to operate and housing about 130 kids on any given day. In the fiscal year that ends June 30, it is expected to cost $14.5 million, DCF reports.
But advocates say they haven’t seen the savings used for any measurable increases in services. Instead, they suspect, the legislature has raided the savings as deficits constantly plague Connecticut’s budget.
“DCF has now gotten the numbers down. We don’t think they have put the right services in place around them. We don’t know the types of additional services they and their families have received,” said Anderson of the juvenile justice advocacy group.
Commissioner Katz said the department has, over the last couple of years, opened programs and services that were once available only to youths in the foster care system to those in the juvenile justice system.
The state is making no promises to increase services in the community with the closure of CJTS, however. That’s because the state budget the legislature adopted provided less than half the amount DCF received last fiscal year to provide juvenile justice services this fiscal year – which is only enough to provide programming until March.
“There is no pocket of money sitting here for that,” Katz said.
Rather, the department’s plans to push forward with closing of CJTS over the next six months and deal with each youth committed to them in the meantime on a case-by-case basis.
Dixon said that may mean asking the agency’s current network of private providers to take in one of these boys, and the agency will provide a security officer to help compensate for the fact that their facilities are not secure.
On any given day, that network has 14 or 15 available beds – and some may be willing to go over capacity – said Dixon. Of the 39 youths currently at CJTS, three-quarters of them are slated to return home.
Each month, between six and 10 youths are committed to the agency by the courts – a manageable number in the short term, the Malloy administration believes.
“The likelihood that an additional six [youths] from the court system can’t be accommodated each month seems unlikely,” said Barnes. “Yes, it’s inconvenient. Yes, it’s difficult. We have been arguing that it was going to be inconvient and difficult all along, but we are still going forward with it because it is the right thing to do. … If we continue to allow children into CJTS over the next six months, when we don’t think that’s a good idea – then how are we serving children?”
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