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A Success Story Rings Hollow

Commentary by Helen Ubiñas
June 5, 2005

The title of the seminar looked intriguing: "From Crisis to Success: The Reform Initiative at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School."

It seemed worth a trip to Miami Beach last week to hear all about it, because it sure doesn't look like success from up here.

Donald DeVore, the man who runs the scandal-spawned school, started modestly enough: It's a "work in progress," he said.

That was right after he spotted me in the audience and came hustling over to assure me he wasn't violating Gov. M. Jodi Rell's travel ban. "We're paying for this out of our own pockets," he said. He and his posse weren't even staying at the conference site, the posh Eden Roc Renaissance Resort and Spa, he assured me. He had booked a cheap place in South Beach.

Uh ... OK. But what I really wanted to know about was this "crisis to success" stuff. It seemed an odd way to characterize the most appalling legacy of the Rowland administration, a monstrosity built not for the benefit of the troubled kids it houses but to satisfy the ambition and greed of Rowland's cronies.

But, hey, if ever there was a place to suspend reality, Land of the Impossibly Beautiful, Bronzed and Buff was it.

So, I sat there and listened to DeVore and his associates talk about the turnaround at the school. Workers are receiving intensive and ongoing training. The notorious Building 2, where the most violent offenders were housed, has been closed. Violence is down. Programs have been added to cut down idle time. And, DeVore told the group of awe-struck juvenile justice types, the use of restraints and seclusion is at an all-time low.

"I think some really good work has been done," DeVore said as he walked the small audience through a slick PowerPoint presentation.

The reforms at the school were nothing short of remarkable, said Orlando Martinez, a consultant who's been paid $28,525 in the past nine months.

Francis Mendez, who's in charge of programming at the school, got downright giddy describing an apple-picking outing that staff and kids took.

But, DeVore repeated, it was still a "work in progress."

As it happened, I'd met one of those works in progress, 16-year-old Tyreem Tillman, a few days before. Two weeks out of the training school, and aside from a few visits from his parole officer, Tillman had yet to see any of the post-release support the school set him up with. The family service worker hadn't come by. No one was monitoring his medications. No word on the drug rehab program that they had insisted had to be in place before he was allowed to go home.

After his presentation, I asked DeVore about this. Wasn't discharge planning - or the lack of it - at the top of the reform list? Right there in the February progress report he co-authored, it talks about "enhancing our ability to track the progress of these children once they leave CJTS." Wouldn't someone have to show up to do that? He conceded that that was still an area they were working on. Another work in progress.

What about the claims I heard from several folks, including Tillman, that harsh restraints and lengthy seclusions are still used on a regular basis? He scoffed; kids don't always tell the truth.

But it's not just kids. Public Defender Jim Connolly said he hears from clients regularly that the use of restraints and seclusion remains common; he believes them. State Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein said children are being handcuffed despite the section of DeVore's "action plan" that calls for minimizing the use of mechanical restraints.

"There are a lot of people who don't want to see CJTS ever improve" DeVore snapped. "It's been a whipping boy for so many years that there are a lot of people who really don't want to give it a chance."

So, I asked a few of those people he's so convinced want to see it fail.

"From the beginning all we have wanted was for this facility to succeed, to give these boys an opportunity to learn, to grow, to become productive members of society," said Milstein. "But they continue to demonstrate an inability to do it effectively."

"Look at Tyreem," said Connolly. "He is the epitome of their best effort at a discharge plan. In all the time I've represented kids there, I don't think I've seen that much effort put in, and even with that, it was a total failure."

And it doesn't come cheap. The school, designed to hold 240 boys, houses about 70, while staffing remains at about 365. A collective gasp echoed across the room when DeVore mentioned the $500,000 it costs to keep one boy locked up at CJTS for a year.

With that price tag, we shouldn't be talking about a work in progress, but a work of art.

Helen Ubiñas' column appears Thursdays, Sundays and alternating Tuesdays. She can be reached at ubinas@courant.com.

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.
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