Delinquent teenage girls are being confined in growing numbers at the state's York Correctional Institution for women in Niantic — stirring further criticism of child-welfare officials who already face a legislative investigative hearing next month.
In the latest of several broadsides aimed at the Department of Children and Families recently, state Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein said the "maximum-security prison for adult women ... cannot meet the needs of complex and vulnerable girls."
Milstein wrote those comments in a July 31 letter to DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton, and released it last week in conjunction with a new study titled "From Trauma to Tragedy: Connecticut Girls in Adult Prison."
The report adds to a fusillade of negative comments the child advocate has launched at the department in recent weeks over the death of an infant in foster care, the increased use of potentially dangerous restraints on patients in the state psychiatric hospital for children and the continued problems in complying with a court decree on foster care standards.
At the time of Milstein's report last month, 37 girls ages 15 to 17 were incarcerated in the prison's maximum security unit — near adult women prisoners, although not sharing cells with them, she said. More recently, the number of girls rose to a record high of 40, Milstein said, although DCF said it had dropped to 34 by the end of last week.
DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said Milstein's report "oversimplifies a far more complex set of issues, and leaves out the fact that there are so many tens of thousands of families and children that we serve."
But the issue still will become one of the subjects of an investigative hearing legislators plan to conduct next month, said state Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the select committee on children.
Sen. Toni Harp, D- New Haven, a committee vice chairman, said it may be time for lawmakers to reconsider breaking up the large child-welfare agency.
Since the 2003 closing of Long Lane School for Girls in Middletown, the state has lacked a "secure facility for [female] juvenile delinquents," Meyer said. As a result, girls who Milstein said do not belong in prison end up at York, many times awaiting trial on bonds of less than $5,000 for nonviolent criminal charges.
Meyer said one of the things his committee will seek to learn — in a joint hearing with the legislature's human services committee that could last several days — is why it's taken so long to build a new girls' facility.
An 18-bed facility, with programs designed to send young offenders quickly into less intense settings, is planned for Bridgeport and scheduled to open in mid-2010.
Worries about the increasing number of girls at York are not new — in January 2007, both DCF and Milstein expressed concern when the number reached 30 — but now Milstein said the number is "moving in the wrong direction."
That, she said, is "cause for alarm about the quality of planning, social work and advocacy demonstrated by DCF on behalf of the girls [at York] and all girls at risk for incarceration in Connecticut."
The DCF's Kleeblatt and Leo Arnone, chief of the department's juvenile services bureau, spoke with The Courant at length to detail progress they say they have made. The DCF has established 25 new group homes exclusively for girls since 2005, and has opened thousands of new opportunities for children and their families to receive therapy and stem problems.
The DCF officials said that within two or three years, the girls who don't belong at the women's prison — that is, those who have not committed serious felonies — will be elsewhere once new facilities become available.
In the meantime, Arnone said, "We don't forget these girls when they go to York." The Department of Correction has given DCF officials space at the prison, and a DCF social worker is devoted to keeping track of the girls and making sure they stay in touch with their regular case workers and family members.
Milstein said DCF still isn't doing enough. One of DCF's problems, she said, is that it falls down on preventive programs that could keep children from reaching the point where they are placed in jail.
Over the past two years, nearly 250 girls ages 15 to 18 "spent part of their adolescence in York," she said.
Most "had significant involvement with DCF during the course of their lives, including spending years in DCF funded and licensed programs," Milstein said. In fact, DCF is the legal parent or guardian of one-third of the girls at York, she said.
These girls "have experienced abuse and neglect, violence in their homes and communities, and multiple disruptions from their families and schools," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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