Child Advocates Pushing For Family Support Centers
March 5, 2007
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
Each year, about 900 kids show up in the state's juvenile courts in the middle of a serious crisis at home. Many have committed no crime. They may be runaways, truants or simply out of control.
About 300 of these so-called "status offenders" wind up in juvenile detention cells, placed there by judges who complain they have few other options and just want to keep the kids safe.
With Gov. M. Jodi Rell's support, child advocates are pushing for passage of a bill this legislative session that would give judges a new resource in helping these kids.
The bill calls for the creation of new family support centers in Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury in the 2008 fiscal year and six more centers in such places as Middletown, Stamford, Willimantic and New Britain in 2009.
The centers would keep troubled youths out of detention and divert them from court by providing safe respite beds for a few days, proponents say. Staff would be available on a 24-hour basis to provide interventions for families in crisis. The centers would try to mediate personal problems, help kids stay in school and screen them for appropriate mental health care or trauma treatment if they need it.
"We need to really pay attention to these youth when they begin to be truant, act out or are beyond control," said Martha Stone, director of the Center for Children's Advocacy at the University of Connecticut School of Law and one of the measure's leading proponents.
"By putting services in place early, we'll be able to stem the rising tide of numbers of these youth burrowing into the system," Stone said.
Connecticut's Chief Court Administrator William J. Lavery told legislators at a recent hearing that status offenses are "the gateway" through which many adolescents become juvenile delinquents.
About 4,000 cases of families with service needs come into juvenile court each year, making up about one-third of all the cases supervised by juvenile probation officers, Lavery said. More than 50 percent of those cases are referrals for truancy, out of control youths or runaways.
About 900 of those children have serious or escalating needs that require immediate intervention, he said. The family support centers are meant to help those kids who are most at risk.
"When fully implemented, this plan has the potential to significantly reduce the number of status offenders who recidivate and increase the number of kids who are successfully staying out of the court system," Lavery said.
To some degree, Lavery, in conjunction with the state Department of Children and Families and the judicial branch, has little choice. A state law passed in 2005 prohibits juvenile courts from incarcerating status offenders beginning Oct. 1.
In her proposed two-year state budget released last month, Rell set aside $3.5 million to establish the four urban support centers in late 2007 and early 2008. And although her budget includes funding to continue operating those centers in 2009, it did not include the additional $1 million officials say they need to create the six additional support centers planned for the suburban towns.
Stone said the up-front investment will save the state money in the long run. According to figures provided by the judicial branch, a two-week stay in juvenile detention costs $3,500 to $5,600 a child. A two-week stay in a residential respite program costs $5,400 to $6,000. By comparison, a child's involvement in a family support center lasting two to five months would cost, on average, $3,750 a child.
At least one youth advocate said he was concerned about the bill's focus. Christopher Montes, an administrator for New Britain's youth and family services division, said he supports the bill but is worried about how it limits funds for the support centers to contract with private providers.
Montes said the language should be expanded to include municipal youth service bureaus, such as New Britain's, that have an active juvenile justice component.
"The reason why youth service bureaus exist is pretty much everything that is in this bill," said Montes, who estimated that his office helped about 500 kids last year. New Britain has an active juvenile review board that assesses the needs of truants and runaways, offers them counseling and other assistance and diverts them from court, he said.
"Why should we re-create the wheel - if it's wobbly at all - if we could just add spokes," Montes said.
Stone said the youth service bureaus are an integral part of the continuum of care for these children. But she said the bureaus tend to focus on lower-risk children, and the family support centers would be dedicated to youth in serious crisis who need immediate and extensive intervention.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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