There’s a single word that embodies one of the main reasons private providers haven’t stepped up to open secure, community-based facilities for the state’s most at-risk children in its juvenile justice system.
“Once you start saying ‘locked’… it changes the diagram of the program. It changes the philosophy of how you’re going to look at it. And it changes the kids’ perspective too, because once they’re locked in, sometimes they think they’ve got nothing to lose, and you’ve got a whole new ballgame,” said Daniel Rezende, the executive director of Connecticut Junior Republic in Waterbury, a private, nonprofit that provides a range of services for troubled youth.
Rezende made his comments Monday at an informational session organized by the Judicial Branch to hear why private providers like Rezende haven’t submitted proposals to provide treatment for delinquent children at secure, community-based facilities. In the 17 months since the Judicial Branch inherited the responsibility of caring for the state’s most troubled children, no new beds have been made available beyond those in the REGIONS program in the Hartford and Bridgeport juvenile detention centers.
The Judicial Branch has issued three RFPs for the secure housing since February 2018, according to the state, and received only two proposals. Only one was successful — an eight-bed facility in Hamden will open in August, with the provider making eight more beds available at a later date.
In the meantime, children in need of services are being treated in special units in the detention centers.
“The REGIONS program is for kids who are engaged in general delinquency, and delinquency risk factors such as anti-sociality that are really driving that behavior, as opposed to psychiatric issues, or developmental disabilities,” said Catherine Foley Geib, the deputy director for Juvenile Residential Services in the Judicial Branch.
Last year, 54 boys were discharged from REGIONS, the majority of whom were sent to step-down facilities before they went home. More than 20 girls were released from Journey House, which provides REGIONS programming to girls. It was not immediately clear Monday how many children were rearrested after they completed the programs.
Judicial officials hope to award two to three more contracts to private providers so they won’t have to continue to treating kids in the detention centers. They expect to release another RFP in a few months.
Monday, they heard a host of reasons why private providers haven’t responded to the state’s requests for proposals, ranging from concerns about the state’s laborious process for awarding contracts to overcoming local objections to the projects.
“Your guys’ RFP process is so complicated,” said Community Health Resources President Heather Gates. The budget sections are vague, she explained, and often it’s difficult to file a proposal within the four to six weeks the department gives providers to submit their plans. “These things are so time-consuming to respond to.”
Gates also expressed concern about long-term funding and the lack of cost-of-living increases, “which has a huge impact on our ability to sustain residential programs, in particular, over a long period of time.”
She also suggested the branch offer decade-long contracts, not the five years it is currently proposing.
“Five years is not long enough for us to want to go out with our capital, our attorneys, our public image and relationship in order to either purchase a site or renovate a site, only to risk losing that contract five years later,” Gates said. “We do not experience that for the most part with any other state agency.”
Finding a building is a heavy lift, as well. “Some of the work that has to go on in communities at large are things that have to be a process, not an event,” said Sherry Albert, chief operating officer of Community Solutions, Inc. “You have to understand you’re on the town’s clock, or the city’s clock, not the state’s clock.”
Albert said the time to secure approval from local authorities could, in some instances, take over a year.
Rezende also said boards of directors, concerned about the long-term viability of their organizations, can be reticent to take on running a locked facility. All it could take is one negative thing happening under the providers’ watch, and all their programs are at risk. Rezende said he’s seen providers close their doors because of a single bad incident.
“Is it worth a 100-year agency, and all your dollars that you’ve put in, and you’re servicing maybe 2,000 kids, and maybe 10 of them are in a locked facility, is it worth you putting your efforts into that even though your mission says you should do it, and we want to help those kids, but is it worth it for the other 1,900 kids?” he asked. “Because you could be jeopardizing all your services for them.”
Relying on private entities to provide these services is new for Connecticut, said Gary Roberge, executive director of the Court Support Services Division. Traditionally, delinquent children have been housed in big state-run facilities like the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, instead of in small, community-based residential treatment centers.
“This is a big system change that we’re talking about,” Roberge said, acknowledging the time it’s taking to offer juveniles services in secure treatment. “We’re going to learn as we go.”