Following concerns about conditions at two youth prisons in Connecticut, the Connecticut General Assembly’s Committee on Children met Thursday to discuss improvements.
In July, Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate released a report addressing complaints about unacceptable conditions at Connecticut Juvenile Training School and the neighboring Pueblo unit, juvenile correctional facilities for boys and girls, respectively. The Committee on Children first met in August to address the Department of Children and Families’ action plan to address concerns about staff training and the use of restraints, among other issues, and met again Thursday to gauge progress. The DCF formulated the action plan in response to the report and announced the plan in August. Representatives from both the OCA and the DCF asserted at the meeting that much progress has been made since the action plan was first implemented, but acknowledged that effective change at the facilities needs to be ongoing.
“To sustain a marked drop in the use of emergency interventions takes time,” OCA Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said. “It is going to take the intensive ongoing training, supervision and monitoring to make a meaningful reduction in the use of physical interventions across the youth that are there.”
CJTS Superintendent William Rosenbeck said the action plan for DCF has six core strategies: committing DCF leadership toward organizational change, using post-crisis data to inform crisis-response practices, workforce development and training for employees, reducing use of restraints and seclusion, actively engaging youth in their treatment and improving administration and staff debriefing techniques.
These changes follow the OCA’s 18-month investigation into conduct at DCF facilities. According the OCA’s report, the primary purpose of CJTS and Pueblo is to improve public safety through the rehabilitation of delinquent youth entrusted into their care.
“OCA’s monthslong review of facility video tapes, incident reports and treatment records revealed urgent safety problems for youth,” the report said. “Findings include inadequate suicide prevention, lack of appropriate support and training for staff, inadequate and harmful crisis management and an opaque system that, despite significant public funding, reports scant information regarding quality, public safety outcomes and oversight.”
The meeting Thursday focused on the improvements being made through the DCF because the infractions that the OCA investigated had already been so heavily discussed, Senate Chair of the Committee on Children Dante Bartolomeo said.
A main goal for the DCF of the last few months has not only been implementing the action plan, but also addressing its unintended consequences. Both Bartolomeo and state Rep. Melissa Ziobron said that following the plan’s implementation, CJTS and Pueblo staff members raised concerns about feeling disempowered.
“A number of staff people have contacted me and shared with me that they feel like [with] the extreme scrutiny that’s being placed on staff … they’re losing control over some of these buildings, particularly at CJTS, because the kids know that they can make one little complaint and then the staff has their hands tied, and there’s a lot of frustration from what I understand regarding that,” Ziobron said.
Concerns about disempowering employees were voiced after a question about phasing out mechanical restrains. Mechanical restraints, as well as face-down restraints and suicide prevention, were brought into the spotlight after the OCA report cited evidence that mechanical restraints — which are to be used only to prevent injury to detainees and staff — were instead being used to manage behavior.
Rosenbeck said the DCF is working with staff to ensure that staff members are empowered. He added that the DCF aims to increase understanding about how to navigate the action plan so that staff can continue to do their jobs, but also respect the youths with whom they work.
The committee also discussed how to adapt to decreasing numbers of youths at the detention units. Due to Connecticut’s budget deficit, Ziobron questioned whether the existence of the detentions units is even a necessary expense. As of Thursday, 68 boys populated CJTS — which was built to hold 145 youths — and one girl was at Pueblo, which usually houses 10. Joette Katz, the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, stressed that though the population in the detention centers is low, the centers are still very necessary.
Katz said that if the facilities closed, too much pressure would be put on other parts of the juvenile-justice system. She compared closing the detention centers to closing hospitals. She said if hospitals were to close, other facilities like clinics and doctor’s offices would be overrun.
“[Placement in the detention centers] should be for the most extreme situation, for the children who need the most supervision and the most therapeutic interventions,” Katz said. “But if you don’t have that you put way too much pressure on the rest of the system, including that you see that these children end up in an adult system, which is really the last place that you’d want to see them.”
The Pueblo unit was established in March 2014, and CJTS opened in August 2001.