Kids in the juvenile justice system have fallen through budget cracks

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In the last minutes of the 2018 legislative session, we got a state budget. Legislators showed commitment and determination in reaching a bi-partisan agreement. The dust hasn’t cleared yet — there is still a lot of uncertainty regarding what got funded and what didn’t.

It is all too evident, however, that even dust-settling won’t clear away a fundamental reality: despite the new budget, children have fallen through system cracks due to a failure to plan and budget appropriately to meet the behavioral health needs of children in and at risk for being in the juvenile justice system. This includes substance abuse treatment services for youth that often are tied to underlying mental health issues.

State agencies, charged with developing the transitional plan for closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Training School (CJTS), had two years to do so.  The governor and legislature had three budget debate seasons to ensure dollars were allocated to create alternative programs, services and facilities before CJTS closed.  But, in the end, the job did not get done and cracks opened. Something was lacking. What was it?

At least two things were missing:  a leadership entity that provides overall guidance to agencies, e.g., a children’s cabinet or planning council or its equivalent whose purpose is to ensure planning and availability of dollars for system reforms which reach across multiple child serving systems to meet the needs of youth; and youth and parent/family participation at planning and decision-making tables.

Consider the tragic case of Jason (not his real name). Jason, who has significant substance abuse treatment needs, was one of the final residents CJTS. He fell through the cracks as CJTS closed and juvenile justice services were being transferred to the Judiciary’s Court Support Services Division (CSSD).

He was transferred to Solnit North because apparently there was not enough time to get his psychiatrist to agree to have him placed at the locked psychiatric facility, Solnit South. Unsettled, he ran away to his family and then to the streets. A few weeks later, he was arrested along with adults in a nearby state for armed robbery. His family and state officials would like to have him transferred back to Connecticut but there is no suitable placement for him; according to CSSD’s plans, a therapeutic community facility will not be available until the fall or later.

While this tragedy might not have been intentional, it was certainly foreseeable children would be the losers if planning for the closure of CJTS and appropriate budgeting for alternative community based facilities and services didn’t happen.

To correct course going forward, it is critical to include the voices of youth and parents/families—for whom lack of services/facilities is real, not theoretical. Decision makers might act with greater urgency and purpose when youth and parents are participating alongside them.

Establishing a leading children’s entity that provides accountability and guidance to multiple state agencies may also be vital. Requiring collaboration between agencies is not enough to prevent failure in planning and too little funding next time. Equally situated state agencies neither have the ability to tell other agencies what to do and when, nor singular accountability for getting the job done. State dollars are scarcer and effective solutions must be shared among agencies for meeting the behavioral health needs of children no matter which system children find themselves in.  And yet, state agencies continue to operate in “silos”; perpetuating lack of coordination and fragmentation in and between our child serving systems.

Linking existing children’s oversight or advisory councils and placing them under a lead agency or entity for purposes of planning and budgeting may be a way to accomplish this needed leadership. The new Office of Health Strategy, which was recently granted authority during this legislative session to carry out statewide health data collection and analysis, may be well situated to play such a leadership role on children’s behavioral health and related issues.

We all agree that closing CJTS was the right thing to do. It is easy to blame a child such as Jason when he makes poor choices, but we also need to hold ourselves accountable when we fail to set up kids to heal and thrive.  The legislative session is over, and the hard task of working together to mortar the cracks and fix our silo-ed systems starts now.

Susan Kelly is the Director of Children’s Policy at NAMI CT and the Alliance for Children’s Mental Health.


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