At the end of a grueling three-hour hearing on Aug. 21, state Rep. Toni Walker, chair of Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, laid the issue on the table. Referring to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, Connecticut’s only state-run youth corrections facility for boys, she asked, “The real question is, does Connecticut need CJTS? [Does the facility provide] the level of care that we really require in this state? Is CJTS the best method of delivering the needs for that population?” These questions are being hotly debated in Connecticut thanks to new revelations of a rash of suicide attempts and pervasive use of physical restraints and seclusion, both at CJTS and in the small Pueblo unit that opened nearby last year to serve troubled girls.
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 juvenile prisons such as the Department of Children and Families’ Training School for boys and Pueblo Unit for girls.
In a scathing 68-page report released July 22, the Office of the Child Advocate reported on its findings after an investigation of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School over the past 18 months. OCA conducted site visits and interviewed staff and residents; viewed videotapes; and analyzed facility reports, educational attendance data and treatment plans. The youth prison model embodied at CJTS can’t be fixed. CJTS should be closed and here’s why:
Recent reports concerning the Department of Children and Families, along with Commissioner Joette Katz’s long history of failure, misplaced priorities and lack of transparency and accountability, leave me with no confidence in her willingness or ability to openly and seriously confront critical issues within her agency. That’s why I felt compelled to call for her resignation.
The Office of the Child Advocate’s report on the Connecticut Juvenile Training School reveals conditions requiring decisive action to keep youth safe. It is encouraging that the Department of Children and Families recently released its own report on CJTS acknowledging problems with the facility. Both reports leave me convinced that many of the youth at CJTS simply do not belong there.
We will never know with certainty what could have been done to prevent the killing of 7-month-old Aaden Moreno by his father earlier this month. But maybe, if we focus on making needed reforms to the Family Court system, we will be able to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.
A two-part series in the Connecticut Mirror this week asked the question of whether youth who break the law in Connecticut receive a second chance. It focused on the relatively small share of youth in the juvenile justice system who are placed in secure settings rather than the vast majority who receive services at home and in the community. What the article left out is that youths who are committed by Juvenile Court judges to the Department of Children and Families and placed at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School have received many second chances before that point.
During its special session, the legislature will consider the governor’s Second Chance proposal, which aims to make sure that a minor criminal offense does not forever bar a person from success. Policymakers should take the opportunity of the special session to extend second chances to children as well. Three quarters of inmates in state prisons do not have high school diplomas, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. One of the most effective ways to cut our prison population is to increase our graduation rate. During the regular session, two no-cost proposals that would help kids in the juvenile justice system thrive in high school and beyond did not come to a vote.
Studies show that implicit racial bias is widespread in the U.S. They also show that it can be checked more effectively if we are made aware of our tendencies to be biased. By raising awareness of the problem of disproportionate minority contact, the ongoing dialogues in East Hartford can help adults to make fairer decisions regarding students and youth.
Before students of all colors can succeed equally in Connecticut’s public schools, we must be bluntly honest about why disparities exist. An achievement gap would exist if we gave every student equal opportunities and some children still failed to achieve. In a myriad ways, we do not give all our children the same opportunities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in school discipline policies that exclude children from the classroom.
Any parents who controlled or disciplined their children by tying them up could expect to be visited by child welfare authorities and police. Yet mechanical restraints have long been commonly employed in Connecticut’s public schools and its juvenile court. The legislature has an opportunity this session to protect our children’s safety and dignity through bills that would limit this practice in our educational and juvenile justice systems.