In the first years of her life, Sunshine suffered abuse and neglect from her biological family that caused her to be removed from her parents and left her with lifelong scars.
Between the abuse and lack of a stable, permanent home in the foster care system, she was left traumatized, anxious, afraid of abandonment and prone to acting out.
And much of that was before she was old enough to start kindergarten.
Sunshine, a pseudonym picked for this story by her father, was sent to a residential treatment program at the Village for Families and Children in Hartford and then placed at her adoptive parents’ home by the state Department of Children and Families when she was 6. After about a year of fostering, the couple decided to adopt her.
It took years of consistent care, but her adoptive parents eventually got Sunshine to a place where they felt she was stable and ready to take on new challenges. Her temper tantrums had decreased, and her self-esteem had improved.
“We decided we are going to keep this little girl and do our best to take care of her and raise her in a safe and nurturing home,” said her father in an interview. “It’s not easy. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we didn’t need any extra drama … we have our hands full with her.”
Their hope that their daughter’s life would continue to stabilize hit a barrier, however. In 2019, DCF removed Sunshine from her adoptive parents after she told case workers that a spanking from her mother had left bruises. The state returned her to the Village for Families and Children, where the then-11-year-old was allegedly sexually assaulted by a teenager.
The CT Mirror is not naming the girl or her family to protect the child’s identity. In a lawsuit brought by the family against the Village in December, the family blamed the Village staff, saying negligence and lack of supervision led to their daughter being assaulted. The family is also critical of DCF’s decision to remove Sunshine from their home in the first place, saying state case workers conducted an inadequate investigation into the child’s abuse complaint.
Sunshine is back with her adoptive family now.
According to the child’s father, his wife spanked Sunshine after a disagreement over whether she could go to a sleepover. That happened on the same day she fell off her bike, which left a bruise, her father said. She told DCF staff that her mother had hurt her.
The state placed her at the Village and, as a result of the alleged assault, her parents say she’s lost much of the progress she made.
“We have to be extra careful with her because of what she’s gone through,” her father said. “The light at the end of this tunnel is very dim right now as far as her being OK, especially now.”
The lawsuit accuses the Village for Families and Children of inadequately monitoring Sunshine and the teenage boy who allegedly assaulted her. The girl was in DCF custody at the time, her father said.
“They [Village] went on as if this was business as usual,” said the father, who is named in the lawsuit as John Doe. “They did not want to take any blame. This happened on your watch. How does this happen?”
The Village said in its defense filing that the girl lied to caretakers so she could be alone with the boy who allegedly assaulted her.
The lawsuit, which asks for more than $15,000 in damages, claims that the Village, whose employees are trained to handle children with emotional problems and knew about the girl’s history, should have been equipped to protect her.
The court decided to strike the Village’s initial special defense, partly on a lack of facts from the organization.
“It is far from clear that an institution charged with custody of a minor alleged to have suffered a sexual assault while in such custody can rely on a claim that the assault victim’s own negligence was a substantial factor in causing the assault,” the court wrote in the ruling to strike.
The updated defense says the girl had arranged to meet the teenager in a bathroom, distracted staff so the boy could go from his bedroom to the bathroom, then went into the bathroom for a “pre-planned sexual encounter,” among other steps she took to “deceive and mislead” staff at the Village.
“The plaintiff’s injuries and/or damages were caused, in whole or in part, by the negligence and carelessness of the minor plaintiff,” the defense reads.
The Village had history with Sunshine. She went to foster care at her adoptive parents’ house after a months-long stay at the facility, a fact her father says reinforces the family’s position that the Village knew about her tendency to act out. But still, she was in a position to interact with teenage boys.
“They know this child and they just — it bothers me to think that they didn’t care enough about her well being to put her in the appropriate facility or dorm,” her father said.
In written responses to questions from the CT Mirror, the Village’s attorney, David Hill, said staff receive extensive vetting, education and training.
“The safety of our children is our highest priority,” the statement read. “Our track record for protecting them is second to none. We do not agree with these allegations, but out of respect for this family, we will not discuss this claim publicly. However, we have no doubt we will be exonerated once we get a chance to do so.”
Sunshine’s father says she shouldn’t have been taken out of her home, that state workers didn’t properly investigate the claims and that they didn’t properly consider her history or what the family had to say about the matter. If they had, he said, the alleged assault wouldn’t have occurred.
DCF officials declined to directly answer questions about the investigation that led to the girl’s removal from the home or the results of the investigation into the alleged sexual assault, citing state law that protects the records of minors in state custody and pending legal action.
“We are not able to comment on the family’s claims regarding our involvement, whether an investigation was conducted at the Village for Families and Children, if that specific agency has been investigated previously, or any relevant findings,” reads a statement from DCF spokesman Ken Mysogland.
The girl was a patient in the Short-Term Intensive Treatment program at the Village, a program that has since closed because the department has adopted a new model of treatment, Mysogland said.
The Village serves a variety of vulnerable children, many of whom are in DCF custody.
Since the closure, the most similar program at Village is its Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility, which has 28 beds across two units. Four children in DCF custody were at the facility as of late October. The facility has a therapeutic program to provide services for foster kids — DCF had 85 children placed there. And there are hundreds of DCF families that receive outpatient mental health care through Village, Mysogland said in an email.
Initially, the girl’s father said, the state said Sunshine would only be removed from her home for 72 hours. But 72 hours turned into about nine months, and the sexual assault occurred within 30 days, her father said. The family says this was part of a poorly conducted investigation — they don’t believe DCF was listening to them, and the state couldn’t find another place for Sunshine.
“Seventy-two hours turned into this whole nightmare of 9 or 10 months and consequently the abuse, which again could have been avoided if [DCF] would have just listened to our pleas,” her father said in an interview.
Sunshine’s father said her parents didn’t realize she’d be placed with teenagers after she was taken from her adoptive home, or that she’d be able to interact with the opposite sex, which they view as unacceptable given her history of sexual trauma.
And, her father says, she didn’t get appropriate care after the alleged assault, including for her mental health needs.
“Everybody wasn’t on the same page as far as staff when it came to the care of kids and eyes on kids,” he said.
The Village declined to answer questions about what care Sunshine received, citing privacy issues.
The Village is a partner agency with DCF, meaning the state places some children who are in foster care at the facility. Sunshine was in one of the program’s community-style programs, according to the lawsuit.
The state declined to get into specifics about the investigation.
Reports of child maltreatment in a facility setting are investigated by the agency’s Special Investigation Unit, and sometimes during the investigation, the state’s investigative unit points out concerns with the program, Mysogland wrote.
In addition to DCF, the departments of Public Health and Social Services monitor The Village.
“The two agencies, along with DCF, crosswalk/share findings of our various activities, respecting confidentiality laws,” Mysogland said. “Other state or federal agencies may also have requirements and oversight of programs at the Village given their status as a funding source.”
In its written responses, Hill said the state didn’t substantiate any claims against Village staff.
It’s not clear whether the organization made any changes to its programming, staffing or protocols following the incident — in written responses, Hill didn’t specify.
“The Village is constantly evaluating our staffing and procedures and making appropriate adjustments — consistent with industry best practices and requirements by our regulators,” he wrote. “The Village receives significant oversight by numerous state agencies, and we welcome that accountability.”
Meanwhile, Sunshine is still struggling, her father said.
“All the time and effort that we put into getting [her] to a stable state of mind was washed away in a week’s time,” he said. “So we had to start all over again from square one.”