Legislators, Lawyers Call for Reforms After Report Reveals Problems in Juvenile Detention Centers

August 4, 2015

Hearings planned after revelations of restraint use, isolation practices

The Connecticut Law Tribune

The findings in a report issued by the state Office of the Child Advocate seemed to shock both lawmakers and the general public.

The report found that boys and girls being held in state detention centers are repeatedly put in restraints or held in isolation. In the last fiscal year, the report claims youths at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School for boys and the Pueblo Unit in Middletown for girls were placed in restraints 532 times.

And, according to the report, issued in July by state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, many youths were moved into isolation after suicide or other self-injury attempts. Left alone, they again tried to hurt themselves. Eagan, an attorney, obtained videotapes that show unsettling images of juveniles tearing their hair out, strangling themselves and breaking wood off of the walls and using it to injure themselves.

In response, Connecticut legislative leaders say they want the General Assembly to hold hearings about the conditions and practices at the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Senate President Martin Looney and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey have asked the chairmen of the Children’s, Human Services and Appropriations committees to conduct the hearings.

“The issues and conditions cited in the Child Advocate’s report and in DCF’s action plan in response require a full and detailed legislative review,” Looney said in a statement. “It is important that we have a full accounting of the facts so that we can immediately act to ensure the emotional and physical health and safety of young people under the state’s supervision.”

Members of the legal community familiar with the juvenile justice system are not surprised by the findings. “I know juvenile defenders and prosecutors are frustrated with the lack of adequate placements for children who need them,” said Bloomfield attorney Aaron Romano.

Two years ago, Romano, in the state Supreme Court case Jeffrey M., attempted to have a troubled youth moved to an out-of-state facility where he said the facilities and oversight would be better. While the trial judge was fine with the placement, the state Department of Children and Families was not. The state Attorney General’s Office represented DCF in the appellate courts and won.

Romano says if placing troubled youths out of state is frowned on, then the state must create effective facilities here. “That policy works only if you had adequate in-state placement,” said Romano. “I said it then and lo and behold … it didn’t take this study to know [that facilities are] inadequate. … I think [Connecticut Juvenile Training School] structurally is merely a prison. If you go to any maximum security prison for adults, you’ll see it’s virtually the same.”

Romano said the state should establish more smaller, group homes for troubled youth. “I think group homes work. That’s been my experience with this. The ratio between staff and children is higher and the children aren’t kept in a prisonlike environment,” Romano said.

Martha Stone, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Children’s Advocacy, thinks the state should close Pueblo. She also thinks there should be a plan in place on how to close the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and create two or three smaller communities to take on high-risk troubled male youths.

With regards to the restraints and seclusion issue, Stone believes an outside third-party consultant should come in to monitor those kinds of situations “and make sure the quality assurance program developed is working appropriately.”

Stone fully intends to testify at the upcoming hearings. “There are some serious issues that need immediate attention, but I think if the only thing DCF does is address the conditions in [these two] facilities itself, it is a missed opportunity to look at how the juvenile justice system responds to high-risk youth who are eventually going back to the community,” said Stone.

In response to the state child advocate’s report, Chief Public Defender Susan Storey wrote a formal letter expressing her concerns as well.

“Our clients have continuously complained that they are confined to their rooms for long periods of time and prohibited from interacting with other residents and activities when they are charged with rule violations,” Storey stated. “State law prohibits such seclusion yet the Child Advocate’s report documents extended periods of seclusion occurring even when residents are not acting in an inappropriate or disruptive manner. Clients also complain that staff use physical restraints to manage the residents when it is unnecessary.”

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz issued a statement to the Law Tribune detailing efforts to improve conditions. “We already banned prone restraints and are phasing out mechanical restraints,” said Katz. Prone restraints involve staffers holding juveniles facedown on the ground and have been banned in several states because of the dangers of head injury. Mechanical restraints involve the use of handcuffs or other devices attached to a person’s body restricting freedom.

“Further, we have begun work to expand clinical coverage to second shift and to ensure clinical interventions to more effectively prevent situations when the use of restraint and seclusion become necessary,” Katz said. “Many of these actions are underway, and all will be fully implemented in the next several months. We expect to be held fully accountable for the implementation of this plan, and we look forward to a full discussion designed to support the goal of making our facility a more effective therapeutic and rehabilitative setting for our youth.”

State Senate Minority Leader Leonard Fasano has called for Katz’s resignation in light of the recent findings. He also called the planned legislative hearings “a waste of time.” He said no proposals will be discussed that were not already broached during the last legislative session and shot down by lawmakers.

“We could study this thing another 10 times, have more public hearings that waste more time and meanwhile kids are dying or getting hurt,” said Fasano. “We need a change in leadership.”

Fasano has asked the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate the DCF conduct described in the report. Fasano, who went to Eagan’s office to watch the videotapes, described them as “heartbreaking.”

“I saw the defiant kids being defiant because they are tired of being locked in their rooms by themselves,” Fasano explained. “They say, ‘I’m not going back in that room.’ [Staff members] say, ‘Yes, you are.’ Then they jump the kid and put them in the room.”

He also described the youths trying to harm themselves after they were isolated. Fasano hopes the footage is shown to lawmakers at the hearings. “It is an embarrassment,” Fasano said.