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Seeking Help For Teen Girls In Prison

January 1, 2007
By PENELOPE OVERTON, Courant Staff Writer

The number of girls incarcerated at the state women's prison is increasing, and many of them are teenage victims of abuse or neglect awaiting sentencing for nonviolent crimes.

The increase has prompted child advocates to demand improved state services for at-risk girls, including early intervention programs for abused girls, gender-specific programs and alternative placements for girls who break the rules at treatment centers.

"We're not talking about ax murderers," said associate child advocate Mickey Kramer. "These are mostly runaways, shoplifters and truants. They needed our help, but didn't get it. Most of them don't belong in prison."

At the beginning of December, 30 girls aged 14 to 17 were incarcerated at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, according to the state Department of Correction. Nine were awaiting trial. The other 21 were there for crimes ranging from breach of peace to murder.

In comparison, only 11 girls in that age group were being held at York in December 2005.

Advocates believe these girls are not receiving the mental health, education and behavioral health services they need at York and accuse the state, especially the state Department of Children and Families, of failing them.

DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt acknowledged that the agency needs more services especially for girls. But the number of girls at York, although high, is not extraordinary, he said. For example, two years ago, in December 2004, York held 31 girls, Kleeblatt said.

DCF has recently introduced programming just for girls, and plans to offer more in the future, Kleeblatt said.

"We are a single state agency, one part of a very big, complicated puzzle," Kleeblatt said. "We're the first to admit we need more services for girls. Even one girl in prison is one girl too many. But, that said, you can't hold us wholly responsible."

He said the blame must be shared by society in general, as well as the public education system, judges who send girls to prison instead of treatment centers and the legislature, which has not fully funded a secure treatment center for delinquent girls.

DCF didn't have detailed information about the 30 girls in York in December. But Kleeblatt provided information about the 22 girls who were incarcerated at York in September, which he said was a typical month:

The girls were aged 14 to 17.

Nine were charged with violent crimes, ranging from second-degree assault to murder.

Six were charged with lesser violent crimes, such as assault on a correction officer.

Seven were charged with nonviolent crimes, such as breach of peace.

Fourteen girls were documented victims of past or ongoing abuse or neglect, and three others had been the subject of an abuse or neglect investigation that could not be substantiated.

Twelve of the girls had spent time at a residential treatment center before ending up at York. Placements ranged from substance-abuse treatment centers to psychiatric hospitals to one of the three girls-only delinquent treatment centers.

Four of the girls were unknown to DCF at the time they were locked up at York.

The high incidence of documented abuse and neglect of young York inmates suggests that DCF should keep its abuse and neglect cases open longer, said Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein. When a case is closed, even after abuse is substantiated, DCF services to the family stops.

These girls might avoid delinquency if they received more DCF services as victims, she said.

Kramer said DCF needs to do a better job lobbying judges to send troubled girls to a treatment center instead of York. The best argument for that, she said, is to make these programs work, which means helping girls succeed while they are in them.

That many girls at York have already been treated at a state-funded facility suggests that their programs are not working as well as they should, Milstein said. Milstein urged the state to regularly assess its girls' services to identify best practices and weed out unsuccessful ones.

Martha Stone, director of the Hartford-based Center for Children Advocacy at University of Connecticut Law School, said DCF needs a system of graduated sanctions for girls who get into trouble at treatment centers. Many who get kicked out end up at York, she said.

Advocates have been calling for more services for troubled girls since 2003 when the state closed Long Lane School, the state's only maximum-security program for delinquent girls. DCF has high-security alternatives for boys, but not girls.

If a teenage boy acts up at a DCF-licensed facility or is arrested, they often get moved to Connecticut Juvenile Training School. But a girl in the same situation can end up at the state-run Riverview Hospital for Children and Youth, a regional detention center or York.

DCF has plans to create a new high-security center for girls, but that has sparked criticism. Advocates want an alternative to York, but argue delinquent girls need the kind of treatment that can be found only in small group homes. Such criticism has stalled legislative approval.

The agency has recently introduced several gender-specific programs aimed at girls who are delinquents or are at risk of delinquency in its three privately-operated, state-licensed and state-funded facilities that treat such girls, said Tammy Sneed, DCF's head of girls programming.

Gender-specific programs recognize that at-risk girls are often victims themselves, she said, and use treatments that emphasize relationships, self-esteem and communication. The approach is the hallmark of the state's new Girls Network program, which trains those who work with girls.

The state facilities that now specialize in delinquent girls - Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield, Stepping Stone in Waterbury and Touchstone in Litchfield - can treat up to 68 girls in unlocked settings. Riverview Hospital also accepts delinquent girls with mental health issues.

Public defenders say girls often linger at York waiting for a bed in one of these "step-down" facilities, but Sneed said eligible girls are "almost always" placed quickly. Sneed said none of the 30 girls at York in December were eligible because of their overall aggressiveness.

That does not mean DCF abandons the girls once they end up at York, Sneed said. It has recently assigned a full-time social worker there to facilitate alternative placements. Sneed said York will get a second DCF social worker in the near future.

Although advocates acknowledge that these girls have been failed by people and groups other than DCF, they hold the agency especially responsible because it took so long to implement gender-specific programs for abuse victims and delinquents.

"We've talked about this for years," Kramer said. "In report after report, often paid for by DCF, the issue of delinquent girls has been called urgent and compelling, yet here we are, with the number of girls in prison going up, not down."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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