Juvenile center, ‘costly relic of Rowland era,’ closes

RYAN CARON KING / WNPR

A bedroom in the intake area of CJTS.

The Connecticut Juvenile Training School — the product of bid-rigging, outdated thinking and poor execution by the administration of Gov. John G. Rowland — closed Thursday as the last three young occupants left the sprawling detention center for home or private residential facilities.

The high-security detention center, built in Middletown at a cost of $57 million with the intention of housing more than 200 young inmates, was central to the bid-rigging scandal that forced Rowland from office in 2004 and landed him in prison a year later. Criminal-justice and child-welfare experts considered it obsolete from its opening in August 2001.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called the facility Thursday “an ill-advised and costly relic of the Rowland era.”

“It placed young boys in a prison-like facility, making rehabilitation, healing, and growth more challenging,” said Malloy, a Democrat leaving office in January. “The fact remains that this isn’t a celebratory moment, but a time to reflect on the past mistakes made when it comes to juvenile justice, and an opportunity to create a system that better serves our young people and society as a whole.”

His predecessor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, the Republican who succeeded Rowland, was no kinder in her assessment in 2005, when she concluded the facility should be abandoned.

“There was too little programming and little opportunity and too much of a prison-like atmosphere and far too much recidivism,” Rell said after a tour. “You couldn’t help but be terribly saddened by the failure of CJTS to fulfill its promise.”

But it would take another 13 years to close the facility, which was run by the Department of Children and Families. The General Assembly forced the issue last fall, inserting language in the budget that called for its closure and transferred responsibility for youths adjudicated as delinquent from DCF to the Judicial Branch.

The staff of more than 300 at its height have been transferring to other jobs in DCF and the departments of Correction and Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Joette Katz, the Supreme Court justice who has been DCF commissioner since Malloy took office in 2011, praised their work in an email to staff that noted they worked with some of the most difficult cases to come before the juvenile courts. She alluded to some of the facility’s troubling history.

“The Department was expected to work miracles after other systems had failed,” Katz wrote. “And despite so many odds, we did. Youth graduated high school, recovered credits, learned vocations, developed coping skills, rekindled family ties, and received much needed behavioral health supports. We celebrated every success and deeply grieved every loss. One moment we could be eating birthday cake with a youth, and the next we could be mourning the death of a youth who had returned to his community, only to be murdered. It’s a cycle that unfortunately repeated itself and never got easier.”

But calls for closure grew louder in 2015 after the Office of the Child Advocate released videos showing incidents in which staff violently tackled and dragged youngsters into locked rooms.

“For some, CJTS served as a physical symbol for what is believed to be wrong with the juvenile justice system,” Katz wrote. “DCF was faced with this image, this dark cloud that appeared over CJTS since the day it opened. Unfortunately, many could not get beyond this CJTS image to allow themselves an opportunity to see its strengths and effectiveness with the young men we served.”

Modeled after a facility in Ohio that itself was abandoned in 2009, CJTS opened to complaints that it was poorly designed and ignored current thinking about juvenile rehabilitation — that small residential facilities were far more effective than institutions. Many of the cells were windowless, substandard for use by juveniles and never to be used.

Its recidivism rate was high: Studies found eight out of every 10 CJTS occupants could be expected to be rearrested within 24 months of their release. Not everyone, however, blamed the high recidivism rates on CJTS, and prosecutors said high-security detention must be part of the mix.

“They are there because they tend to be incorrigible,” Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane told the legislature’s Judiciary Committee last month. On the poor outcomes upon release, he said, “Some people say its because of the correctional institution — or is it because of the people who are finally committed there because of their behavior. It’s which came first, the chicken or the egg.”

Now that it’s no longer a question of whether CJTS will close, the focus will shift to what will take its  place and whether the Judicial Department will have the appropriate funding.

Last October, the legislature gave the court system eight months to set up an alternative system for the youth who would previously have been committed to the Department of Children and Families, and therefore most likely sent to CJTS. The state budget also would provide the Judicial Branch with $17 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1st to open small, secure facilities for youth.

However, DCF and the Malloy administration say they need to keep $7 million of the funding to continue programs that aim to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system. The court system says it needs the full $17 million.

CTMirror.org

The Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.

“Unfortunately it appears that there really isn’t enough money for everybody,” said Deborah Fuller, the director of juvenile and family services for the Judicial Branch’s court support division.“There is really no money to fund concurrent systems. It is just very tight.”

Anticipating it will not get the $7 million, DCF has sent notices to many nonprofit providers telling them they will no longer need their services in 90 days. Services slated for elimination include mental health programming and Juvenile Review Boards, which help youth work to improve behaviors.

“The Department recognizes that this reduction will have detrimental impacts to the families we service and to your organization. DCF will continue to advocate for the restoration of the funding for these programs,” DCF said in a letter to providers.

The Wheeler Clinic is one of the many providers hit hard by these cuts. Its president, Susan Walkama, said they “threaten the existence of a number of our evidence-based innovative models, which serve the state’s most vulnerable children, youth and families.”

The needs will not disappear with the money, she said.

Fuller said the court system is working to fill the void with alternative community-based programs. The branch has issued requests for proposals, but few decisions have been made about services that will be ready in July. To replace the high-security cells at CJTS, the state is seeking smaller, secure facilities throughout the state.

Proposals for secure facilities are due to the court system next week, though Fuller acknowledges that it may be months before a new locked facility opens for youth that need such placements.

“It would be a major task to get them up by July 1, but we are still hoping,” she said.

Martha Stone, the founder of the Center for Children’s Advocacy at the UConn School of Law, said, “It’s going to take a lot of collaboration with the different branches of government and with the nonprofit and advocacy community to make this work and to really ensure that a robust array of community based services are in place with sufficient capacity.”

When DCF stopped admitting youths to CJTS, there were concerns that more adolescents would be transferred to adult court and prisons — or would sit in pre-trial detention facilities awaiting somewhere to go.

Data shows an increase in motions made by prosecutors to transfer juvenile cases to adult courts during the first three months of this year compared to last, but they remain relatively rare. They jumped from four to 12. Most requests were rejected.

But the time spent in one of the state’s two pre-trial detention facilities has risen.

For many advocates, those consequences are better than keeping CJTS open.

“Kids shouldn’t sit in jail because we haven’t fully prepared,” said Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. “I think this gap is unfortunate, and I think there probably are some kids who are not getting what they need. I do not think, though, that because it’s not perfect that we should go backwards. I think we have to go forward as quickly as possible.

“This is an important and good day for the children and communities of Connecticut.”

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