Connecticut’s juvenile detention program needs reform

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Sexual abuse. Physical abuse. Emotional abuse. Neglect. Sex Trafficking. Community violence. Violent deaths of family and friends.

This is just a partial list of the traumas that many – if not most – youth who become involved in the juvenile justice system in Connecticut have experienced in their short lives. No wonder that they become willing to act “by any means necessary” in order to survive and protect those close to them — even if this lands them in the custody of law enforcement, juvenile detention, and ultimately in juvenile prisons such as the Department of Children and Families’ Training School for boys and Pueblo Unit for girls.

As the July 2015 report from the Child Advocate poignantly highlights, such incarceration too often leads to further traumatic violence for these youths as victims and witnesses to literally hundreds of often injurious (to staff as well as the youth) physical restraints and seclusion.

Whether they should be confined in these maximum security correctional institutions in the first place is a serious policy question, given evidence that such incarceration does little to protect public safety and actually places youths at risk for re-traumatization.

The staff at these facilities are faced with the impossible challenge of controlling and correcting the behavior and thinking of youths in an environment that is designed to systematically deprive them of the ordinary respect and autonomy that adolescents need in order to learn and mature into adults. The vast majority of line staff are genuinely caring and humane, and should not be blamed for the dysfunctional correctional environment that undermines their laudable efforts and provides an opportunity for a few to resort to aggression, violence or humiliation in dealing with youths.

As the report of the 18-month long investigation by the Child Advocate reveals, incarceration in the Training School and Pueblo Unit not only increases the risk of violence to already traumatized youths, but teaches youths to use aggression against themselves and others by modeling the use of psychological and physical aggression as a means of social control.

This occurs as the result of:

  • inadequate treatment for and response to self-injurious youth,
  • unlawful restraint and prolonged seclusion, and
  • multiple incidents of abuse and neglect of children in the facilities.

No child, regardless of how “difficult to engage,” or “persistently antisocial,” should ever be exposed to this type of treatment. Period.

The troubling and painful findings of the Child Advocate’s report must be taken to heart and acted upon not only by DCF but by the legislature and administration of the state on behalf of all citizens of Connecticut. It is time to stop side-stepping this problem – before any other child, or adult staff, is permanently physically and emotionally damaged or literally loses their life.

Reform cannot be a Band-Aid or a thumb in the dike – which is what has been done to date through the superficial addition of a new “trauma informed” guideline here or “mental health” service there.

Our work in educating professionals, policymakers, and systems about meaningful trauma-informed and mental health-responsive reforms to juvenile justice and child welfare has taught us that the core culture in the system and the facilities have to be re-built from the ground up, or nothing really changes.

Connecticut has the opportunity to take the lead not only locally but nationally by instituting a thorough over-haul of its policies for dealing with the most troubled and troubling youths.

Dr. Robert Kinscherff’s recommendations to the state for deep systemic reforms could accomplish that goal if they are done in fact and not merely in appearance. This is the only way to make our communities and families safer, and to save countless more young lives from being lost.

Christopher Lyddy is a licensed clinical social worker and the Chief Operating Officer of Advanced Trauma Solutions, Inc. He previously served two terms as a state Representative for the Town of Newtown in the Connecticut General Assembly. 

Julian Ford, PhD., is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

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