The Village's south Hartford location, where mental health and substance abuse clinics take place, and home visitation staff work out of.
The Village's south Hartford location, where mental health and substance abuse clinics take place, and home visitation staff work from,. Photo provided

An 11-year-old girl is sexually assaulted in a “residential treatment center.”  The center says it’s HER fault!

Let that sink in. The girl is 11. She was sexually assaulted by a teenage boy at The Village, a Connecticut “residential treatment center.” Residential treatment is a failed intervention that harms children even when they are not physically or sexually abused while confined in them.

The girl’s adoptive parents are suing. A story in the Mirror explains how The Village is defending itself:

“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.

What child could possibly feel safe in such a place?

Across the country residential treatment has been engulfed in one scandal after another, after another after another. The little girl in Connecticut is far from the only child who has suffered, even died, after being confined to such places.

Unfortunately, in all of these cases, no one is asking the most fundamental question: Why in God’s name do we still allow young children to be institutionalized in the first place?

In the case of the girl in Connecticut, given the pseudonym Sunshine by her adoptive father, she was sexually assaulted during her second placement at The Village. The first time she was no older than six. Yes, states still institutionalize 12-year-olds, and 11-year-olds, and 9-year-olds, and 7-year-olds, and 6-year-olds.

That is barbaric. And it would be barbaric even if no child ever were physically or sexually abused in such a place.

That’s because residential treatment is inherently harmful. There is overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t help children of any age, but the younger the child the greater the harm. And there is overwhelming evidence that there are better alternatives.

There is nothing an RTC can do that can’t be done better, and at less cost, with Wraparound programs, in which whatever help a child needs is brought right into the child’s own home or foster home.

In one video, Wraparound pioneer Karl Dennis explains how Wraparound kept safely at home a youth so difficult that even the local jail couldn’t handle him. So surely, Wraparound could help even the most difficult 6-year-old.

In Sunshine’s case, she reportedly was taken from her parents because of abuse and neglect that “left her with lifelong scars.” Even if that is the case, the Department of Children and Families still blundered by apparently moving her from foster home to foster home and then institutionalizing her, all by the time she was 6.

Once she was freed from the institution she made significant progress in the home of foster parents who went on to adopt her. But a false allegation of child abuse led to a rush to judgment by DCF which tore her from her adoptive parents and compounded her trauma by institutionalizing her again, this time at age 11.

It is precisely because she was taken from middle-class adoptive parents that we know all this. They have the resources to fight back. It was their lawsuit that prompted The Village to claim that Sunshine was responsible for her own sexual assault.

But how many times have children been harmed in institutions after being taken needlessly from overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite birth parents who lack those resources? Because it’s so much harder for them to fight back, we can’t know for sure. But we do know this: Of all the children in Connecticut torn from their families in 2020, physical or sexual abuse was alleged in 14% of cases. In contrast, nearly two-thirds were taken away because of neglect — which often means simply the family is poor. We also know that Black children are in Connecticut foster care at twice their rate in the general population — a worse record of racial disparity than the national average.

The outlook is not all bleak. In some ways, Connecticut has done better than other states.

Over the past decade DCF has made significant progress reducing institutionalization, and now uses it at a rate below the national average. DCF also has made commendable progress in reducing entries into foster care.

But what happened to Sunshine illustrates that as long as residential treatment centers are a quick and easy dumping ground, agencies like DCF will dump kids into them.

When it comes to institutions for children, if you build them, they will come. If you keep them open they will stay. Residential treatment centers need to be shut down — beginning with any place that would blame a little girl for her own sexual assault.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform,