When the state’s child welfare agency announced it needed to open a locked facility for troubled girls who break the law, state legislators had a list of questions they needed answers to if they were going to give the Department of Children and Families the $2.6 million needed each year to operate the center.
Weeks later, the state agency has answered the 20 questions posed to them by legislators, the General Assembly’s budget-writing committee has signed off on funding the new program, and girls now live at the 12-bed facility.
“What made me really conclude that this was the right time to do this, I looked at the numbers,” DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said recently on WNPR’s public affairs program “Where We Live.”
The commissioner pointed to 30 girls living in pre-conviction detention facilities; three juveniles on the waiting list to get into the state’s only other locked facility for girls; seven adolescents, 18 and younger, incarcerated at the women’s adult prison for crimes committed as juveniles; and girls being sent out-of-state because nothing in Connecticut meets their needs.
“There are girls that really very easily can fill these ten beds,” Katz said.
The new facility — next to the boys’ detention center in Middletown — has ten spots for girls to live for up to six months and two spots for emergency placements.
Katz has routinely said that locking up troubled girls is not the agency’s norm.
“We are talking about [locking up] ten. By my math, that means we’ve been 98 percent successful with regard to most of those other girls,” she said.
The Judicial Branch reports that of the 1,839 girls charged with breaking the law and whose cases were resolved in 2013, nearly two-thirds of the cases were dismissed or did not result in convictions.
Last year, 667 girls were found guilty of breaking the law for offenses not serious enough to land them in adult courts. Of those, 45 were committed into DCF’s custody.
But advocates challenge Katz’s math.
“Connecticut doesn’t need this. They have more beds than girls coming in,” said Martha Stone, an attorney with the Hartford-based Center for Children’s Advocacy, who often represents girls from low-income families who are committed to DCF.
According to the answers DCF officials provided to legislators in February, 21 girls were in pre-trial detention centers on Feb. 20; no girls committed to the department for breaking the law were living in out-of-state facilities; two of the three girls who had been on the waiting list for Journey House (the state’s other l0cked facility for juvenile girls) were already living at the facility; and two girls committed to the department had been sent to York Correctional Institution, the state’s women’s prison.
“When there’s nothing available, the child goes to York. Now is that a better solution? I would say obviously not,” Katz said.
This new facility in Middletown — called the “Pueblo Unit” — adds 12 beds in a secured facility for delinquent girls to the 14 that already exist at Journey House in Mansfield. Over the last four years, the courts commit on average 55 girls to DCF custody each year.
“It’s still unclear whether there is a need for this many locked beds,” said Sarah Eagan, head of the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate, a state watchdog agency over DCF.
Concerns were also raised after a recent assessment by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center of Juvenile Justice Reform that said DCF has no method to properly assess the effectiveness of the state’s locked facilities or the quality of the community supervision it oversees. The new girls’ facility has also opened at a time when the number of incarcerated boys in Connecticut is at a 10-year high.
Both Eagan and Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven-based advocacy group, argue that as long as there is no way that the state can ensure that only children who actually pose a risk to public safety are locked up, the state’s juvenile justice system is broken.
“Implementing a valid risk and needs assessment instrument … will help ensure that Pueblo and CJTS [Connecticut Juvenile Training School] are not being used simply because there are no more appropriate alternatives,” Edie Joseph, a policy fellow with Voices for Children, wrote in a March assessment of the state’s juvenile justice services.
“We have to have some measure to know: Are children better off?” said Eagan. “That’s what we all want to know.”
Questions From Legislators, Answers From DCF
Here are some of the other questions from legislators and answers provided by DCF:
What specific factors will DCF use to determine if a juvenile justice girl is appropriate for placement in the Pueblo Unit?
The criteria for admission will be: parole admissions, [group home] admissions, after hours emergency admissions. For those on parole or coming from a group home, some of the contributing factors could be being AWOL, non-compliant with their community treatment plan, drug or alcohol use, assaultive or aggressive behaviors.” Emergency admissions are for youths who “are in need of immediate placement within secure care facility. This includes cases of human trafficking, those arrested by the police, girls involved in situations that have become volatile and require their immediate placement for safety reasons.
The Pueblo Unit will have ten regular beds and two emergency beds. Does DCF have any additional information that it can provide to justify the need for the Pueblo Unit in the DCF spectrum of care for juvenile justice girls?
The girls have suffered multiple traumas and unsuccessful placements. They have significant mental health and substance abuse impairments, are difficult to engage in services and often run away, putting themselves and others at risk of harm and exploitation.
What are the criteria that will be used for girls to be discharged from the Pueblo Unit? Who will make the decision? If a girl is denied discharge, does she have any option for appeal?
Upon admissions the reason for the placement at the DCF Girls Unit will be discussed, as well as a revised treatment place being developed. Ideally, a return to their previous placement will occur, either at home or a congregate care setting.
What will be the cost per day, per child, to operate this facility, including health and retirement benefits costs?
$803.10 per day.
What vocational programs will be available at this facility?
A culinary component is being developed. Given the short term focus of this unit, the program is geared to concentrate primarily on the core academics.
How many certified special education teachers will be hired?
A school psychologist, an art and gym teacher will split his or her time between the boys and girls facilities. There will be one full-time special education teacher and one certified social studies teacher at Pueblo.
Will the girls have access to a gym?
Yes, if it is part of the girls’ treatment plan. The building has a room with exercise equipment.
Will the girls be able to go off grounds with staff? Will the girls be allowed home visits when they are close to being discharged?
For those girls who will live there for longer than the majority of girls, it will be determined by their treatment plan.
The DCF Commissioner indicated at the Appropriations hearing that DCF relied on national studies and experts external to DCF to determine a secure facility was an appropriate model: Which studies and which national experts?
A panel was convened in 2005 with national expert Marty Beyer, PhD, to discuss the needs of the girls in Connecticut. DCF used this study as a foundation for the milieu and clinical interventions of this program.”
What enhancements to community-based services will DCF make for juvenile justice girls next fiscal year? Does the governor’s proposed budget include any such services?
If the Appropriations Committee did not approve the $2.6 million request, but instead directed you to present a similar request for community-based services, how would you allocate the funding?
We proposed to create a new program focusing on girls. This new program would be a community-based stand alone, staffed apartment program that services six girls who are committed delinquent ages 17 to 21. … This community-based program fills a major service gap for a population that is in transition from a secure setting to the community and into independent living.
(This story originally appeared at CTMirror.org, the website of The Connecticut Mirror, an independent, nonprofit news organization covering government, politics, and public policy in the state.)