In Connecticut juvenile justice, children get many second chances

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 1.25.05 PMPress Release from CT. Viewpoints – June 26, 2015

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 (DCF) and placed at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) have received many second chances before that point. Typically, a youth who gets in trouble with law enforcement goes to the Juvenile Court four, five or more times – and each time the court responds with community based or in-home services meant to help the youth avoid future trouble.

These services, administered by the Court Support Services Division (CSSD), are remarkably effective. Of the approximately 10,000 youth who go through Juvenile Court in a given year, only about 3 percent get committed to the Department due to the inability of those youth to benefit from community-based services.

It seems to be widely misunderstood, but DCF does not take steps to have children committed as delinquents. It is a judge who — after many episodes of CSSD services prove unsuccessful in curbing criminal behaviors — decides that a secure setting is required for services to have a better chance at helping the youth to not recidivate.

The Department agrees with the advocates that community-based services are best for children. That is why we reduced the number of children (both those committed as abused/neglected and delinquent) in group settings by 58 percent since January 2011.

That is something we are proud of and are committed to continuing. Similarly, at CJTS, the census has been cut to 82 from 141 youth last year at this same time — a reduction of 42 percent. So when a group of state policymakers says the goal for Connecticut should be to reduce the use of secure settings by 20 percent in three years, please note that CJTS already has far surpassed that goal.

Our staff has done a great job moving this number downward by supporting the youths’ successful reintegration to their communities. We anticipate that the establishment of a six-month length of stay will continue the direction of using the secure setting for as few children as possible and for the shortest time possible consistent with public safety and effective treatment.

Furthermore, our agreement with the advocates extends beyond the belief in community services and the commitment to use secure treatment as little as possible.

Children of color certainly are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system, and this is a great injustice. Law enforcement and judicial decisions all precede any involvement of the Department and CJTS, but we embrace the opportunity to have an honest and full examination and discussion of these questions of racial justice. That is why the Department has established a racial justice initiative to make it a topic of routine and organized discussion among our staff throughout our offices and facilities.

Further, we recently hosted Connecticut law enforcement at CJTS to discuss racial justice and the criminal justice system with the youths. Gov. Dannel Malloy attended and spoke to both the youths and law enforcement that day when he, too, noted that the goal must be to further reduce the use of locked settings.

We also agree with the advocates that behavioral health treatment is imperative for the success of the youths in our programs. CJTS offers a menu of individual and group clinical services that are the envy of many other jurisdictions and certainly exceed anything found in adult systems.

We also agree that restraints and seclusion are not therapeutic interventions and that they should only be used when necessary to ensure safety. Restraints occur approximately 40 times per month (or 40 percent less than the 13-week period observed by the Office of the Child Advocate as reported in the Mirror article), and CJTS is working to reduce this through staff trainings and consultation with experts to continue to develop a more therapeutic environment.

Further, it is critical that we address the educational needs of the youths in both our juvenile justice and child protection systems. We have made educational progress a point of increased focus, but we have a lot of improvements that are necessary in partnership with the school systems across Connecticut that struggle to serve disadvantaged youths across a whole variety of circumstances.

Without question, too many (approximately 20 percent) of the youths who are committed as delinquents also are or were committed as abused/neglected. It is our belief that efforts to improve permanency for children in foster care and to improve education and other opportunities for all youths in care will reduce involvement in the juvenile justice system.

A study by the National Juvenile Justice Network reports that during the period from 2001 to 2011, Connecticut led all states in reducing the percentage of confined youth as measured by youth per 100,000 in the general population. Then reformers took the next step of raising the age of Connecticut’s juvenile system, and despite increasing its reach, the use of secure confinement stayed low.

We at the Department also wished we lived in a more perfect world where absolutely no youth required a secure setting to contain him or her while services could work to intervene with behavioral health or other underlying issues driving a child’s troubles. But working with real children and youth as we do, we have to operate in the world as it exists in Connecticut today. With that comes the realization that we still require secure treatment settings for a small portion of the thousands of youth who need help.

Joette Katz is the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.

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