Sen. Seminara: Restructuring of troubled STAR homes to be monitored closely

March 18, 2024

DCF unveils plan to restructure troubled STAR homes

Waterbury Republican-American

Child welfare officials Thursday rolled out a $6.2 million plan to restructure a program for providing temporary housing and initial supports for youths who are removed from their homes.

The plan is a response to investigations of incidents and troubling allegations of physical and sexual abuse at a temporary group home in Harwinton for teenage girls that exposed flaws and weaknesses in the Short-Term Assessment and Respite program.

The state Department of Children and Families shutdown the STAR home in Harwinton in late November, but it continues to operate seven others in Bridgeport, Hartford, Ledyard, Waterford, West Hartford and Wolcott.

DCF is reallocating $6.2 million to bolster staffing for STAR homes and training; reduce the number youths temporarily placed in STAR homes; increase recreational activities for them; establish two transitional treatment centers for boys and girls who need more intensive supports; and reserve beds in existing psychiatric treatment centers for referrals who require higher levels of care and supports than transitional treatment centers can provide.

DCF officials collaborated on the overhaul of the STAR program with the governor’s office, state Office of Policy and Management, and the leadership of the legislature’s Committee on Children.

Development of the plan forestalled legislative action at least in the 2024 General Assembly session that was being contemplated following problems at the STAR home in Harwinton that were first reported by Connecticut Inside Investigator.

In a show of support, Democratic and Republican leaders of the Committee on Children and Gov. Ned Lamont joined acting DCF Commissioner Jodi Hill-Lilly to announce the restructuring plan Thursday at the Legislative Office Building.

THE STAR PROGRAM IS BEING replaced by the Specialized Trauma-Informed Treatment Assessment and Reunification program.

The new name reflects the additional treatment options for youths who have complex needs that exceed what the STAR program originally was intended and equipped to address. It also underscores the ultimate goal of reunifying youths with their families when possible.

“We changed the name to be a trauma-informed practice, so as we move into this new model it really is important to note we are focused on the treatment of these kids who have gone through trauma,” said Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, the House chairwoman of the Committee on Children.

In addition to the new name and STTAR acronym, another immediate change will be reducing the number of older children and teens placed in these temporary group homes from six to five. DCF officials have said 100 to 120 youths between the ages of 11 and 17 cycled through STAR homes each year.

Hill-Lilly said this census reduction will be accomplished through attrition when youths transition to another placement or return home. None of the seven remaining homes will be closed.

Hill-Lilly also reported DCF is planning to replace the shuttered Harwinton home so there will be eight STTAR homes again operating in the state.

The development of the intensive transitional treatment centers is one of the new components of the revamped STTAR program. There will be one eight-bed center for boys and another for girls. The facilities will offer more comprehensive treatment supports for youths whose needs are too acute for STTAR homes. The locations have yet to be determined.

Hill-Lilly and Melanie Sparks, the chief fiscal officer at DCF, said the transitional treatment centers likely will take six months to get up and running between bidding and awarding contracts for the operations.

Youth who stabilize in these transitional treatment programs but cannot be provided a home setting in a timely manner will be referred to therapeutic group home for care. There are 20 of these DCF-funded group homes operating in 18 towns and cities across the state.

THE RESTRUCTURING PLAN also provides for inpatient psychiatric treatment for youths whose needs exceed the ability of what the two transitional treatment centers can provide.

There will be three beds each set aside at the Middletown and East Windsor campuses of the Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center, a DCF-run psychiatric hospital that provides long-term care for children with severe mental illness or behavioral problems. Priority access will be reserved for any youths referred from the transitional treatment centers for an inpatient treatment.

State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said the plan announced Thursday is a step forward and reflects some recommendations from the independent Office of the Child Advocate, but more programmatic changes and greater state funding commitments are required for the children served by STTAR and other DCF programs.

She said DCF’s follow-up actions must be closely monitored to evaluate how the changes are improving care, treatment and outcomes in the refashioned STTAR program.

Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Avon, and Rep. Anne Dauphinais, the ranking Republican members of the Committee on Children, said they are hopeful the restructured program will produce safer environments and better outcomes for youths placed in STTAR homes, and the communities where they are located, too. Seminara represents Harwinton.