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No Place for Girls

Daniel D'Ambrosio

December 01, 2009

The second time 15-year-old Kristi ran from Stepping Stone, a private residential facility for troubled adolescent girls in Waterbury, she was stopped by a fellow resident soon after she fled through a gated exit near the gymnasium.

"She tackled me down to the ground and told me she didn't want me to leave," said Kristi in a recent interview.

Vince Camarca, program director for Stepping Stone, explains his staff, according to state law, can't physically restrain minors unless they are a danger to themselves or to someone else. Fleeing into the streets of Waterbury doesn't qualify.

So instead of stopping her, Stepping Stone staff chased after Kristi there have been at least 18 runners like her in the past two years hoping to talk her into returning to the large Victorian mansion that houses the treatment program licensed and funded by the state Department of Children and Families. DCF has 22 delinquent girls in the Stepping Stone program, filling it to capacity. The agency, with a 2010 budget of $850 million, pays about $400 per day per girl, most of whom are on parole or under child protective services.

When I spoke to Kristi she was preparing to return home, where she will continue to receive counseling to help integrate her back into her family. She was going home just in time for Thanksgiving after more than two years in various treatment programs and detention centers. And even though the tackling incident proved pivotal in her recovery she says she "felt great" that the girl cared enough to stop her from running Camarca says it was nearly a disaster.

"Two girls are running, it added more chaos to a bad situation," he said.

Stepping Stone is a semi-secure facility. The doors lock, but will open after 15 seconds, or even sooner if you hit them hard enough, to comply with both fire safety code and federal regulations. The girls being treated there are well aware of this loophole in the security system.

Connecticut has two other privately run residential treatment facilities where DCF places girls: Touchstone in Litchfield, and Journey House at Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield Center. Touchstone is a "staff secure" facility with 16 beds, meaning it's an open campus. Staff is the only thing standing between the girls and escape. It's the first stop for girls who are having trouble, whether living at home or in a group or foster home, but who don't pose a serious flight risk. Journey House is a secure facility with 11 beds and locked doors, for girls who need intensive clinical services for substance abuse and other issues.

Kristi's story perfectly illustrates why the DCF needs a state-run secure facility for the most troubled juvenile girls in its care. The essential role of a secure facility is to calm a girl down by ensuring that she can't escape, and by "wrapping" her in the services she needs, according to Camarca.

"You have to stabilize girls first before they can get any therapy," explained Jeffrey Carr, a juvenile justice parole officer under DCF. "If they're out of control, you can't do anything for them."

Connecticut hasn't had a state-run secure facility for girls since 2003 when the Long Lane School, which housed both boys and girls, closed. In 1998, a girl named Tabatha committed suicide at Long Lane and in response the DCF opened the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown in 2001, a secure facility for boys. But the girls were left behind in Long Lane.

"They basically abandoned the girls," said Jeanne Milstein, the state's Child Advocate since 1995. "They weren't mowing the lawn. Some of the doors didn't lock."

Overall, conditions at Long Lane were "deplorable," Milstein says, and when the school was finally closed in 2003 on the orders of Gov. John Rowland, "once again it was the girls who lose, the girls who wait, the girls who are on hold."

While Journey House in Mansfield Center is secure, it's "very compact," according to Tammy Sneed, director of girls' services for DCF, and it doesn't provide the space for the more individualized services girls like Kristi need. Kristi was in and out of four programs and two detention centers before Stepping Stone was able to bring her to the point of returning home. She began drinking and smoking marijuana at the age of 12, she says, after her uncle died of a massive heart attack.

"My uncle took care of me while my father got locked up again," said Kristi. "My uncle was around me for the rest of my life before he passed away in 2006. Everything came apart for me. I felt like I had no support."

Soon Kristi was a familiar figure to police in her home town, where she was arrested for assault, breach of peace and disorderly conduct. On Nov. 7, 2007, she was taken from her home by DCF and hasn't been back since until this Thanksgiving.

Sneed says two years was far too long for Kristi to be away from home, and that if there had been a secure state-run facility to send her to for those intensive services, she would have returned home much sooner. DCF is now trying to build the facility Sneed says Kristi needed tentatively named Nob Hill Academy for $15 million in a Bridgeport neighborhood.

"Nob Hill will be larger than Journey House. It will have more services and more program space," said Sneed.

But at a November "informational meeting" in Bridgeport, DCF ran into a buzz saw of opposition against Nob Hill. High-ranking officials from the agency, including Sneed, were shouted down in a replay of last summer's town hall meetings on health care. Bridgeport residents, tired of getting all the detention centers and halfway houses in their city, see Nob Hill as a jail even if it doesn't look like one from the outside smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood, plain and simple.

"You can hardly find a neighborhood [in Bridgeport] that doesn't have a group home or facilities other towns wouldn't accept," said Mayor Bill Finch. "We have bent over backward to provide regional facilities in an urban area. At some point you can't keep doing this to Bridgeport."

When it was his turn to speak, Rep. Chris Caruso, D-Bridgeport, held a sign saying "Brookfield not Bridgeport," explaining that Governor Rell lives in Brookfield and that he was sure her neighbors would welcome Nob Hill.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a jail. You are holding people against their will," said Caruso. "These girls have probably been involved in gang violence, assaults, maybe attempted murder. We don't know."

Marjorie Williams, who lives minutes away from the four-acre site where DCF wants to build Nob Hill, said after the raucous meeting at the carousel in Beardsley Zoo that she only learned of the planned facility a few weeks ago, when it was already slated for consideration by the bond commission.

"There's a stigma to Bridgeport already," said Williams. "There's strength in unity, we will do whatever it takes to stop this."

That's bad news for the DCF, which sees the Nob Hill neighborhood as the perfect location for its secure facility for girls, with Route 8 and bus lines nearby, making it easier for family to visit. It's also the logical spot to put the facility because DCF's two other programs, in Waterbury and Litchfield, are also along Route 8, said Leo Arnone, DCF's bureau chief for juvenile services.

No one knows whether Nob Hill Academy will go forward, as Gov. M. Jodi Rell removed it from the state Bond Commission agenda days before the meeting in Bridgeport, following pressure from both Caruso and Finch. If a bond is not authorized before the end of the year, the contract to build Nob Hill will have to be renegotiated and will go up by at least $1 million, according to Arnone.

Caruso and Sen. Anthony Musto, D-22nd District have requested a meeting with Rell during the first week of December to discuss their concerns about Nob Hill. They've also suggested that Mayor Finch and other city officials and residents attend.

When asked why DCF had not reached out to Bridgeport residents until after city leaders caught wind of the bond request and got it at least temporarily quashed, DCF officials blamed the oversight on the protracted budget process, which went into September. Spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said there was a "pretty short window" for a meeting between the legislature's approval of the facility and its appearance on the bond commission agenda. The facility was first authorized by the legislature in 2007 and would be completed by August 2011 if all goes according to plan.

"We regret that we didn't do this sooner," said Kleeblatt of the Bridgeport meeting.

Parole Officer Carr says he and others have been asking for a secure facility for girls since even before Long Lane closed. Carr claims DCF replied there was no need for a facility since the girls had "minor problems" that could be handled in group homes or foster homes.

"But us parole officers knew different," said Carr. "The girls are a lot tougher than the boys. They're even more aggressive and assaultive."

The problem with runaway girls has tripled since Long Lane was closed, according to Carr. Soon after the closing, he said parole officers found themselves driving around looking for places to put girls. If facilities like Stepping Stone couldn't keep them from running away and getting into more trouble, he said they often ended up sentenced by a judge to York Correctional Institution, the women's prison in Niantic. And the "real, real difficult girls ended up out of state," says Carr.

Kleeblatt confirmed that since September 2004, 491 children boys and girls have been sent to programs out of state. That number is down to 331 children as of this month, and Kleeblatt says it reached as low as 278 in March 2007. He could not provide a number for delinquent girls only.

"I don't think it was fair," said Carr. "It was a girl who took her life [at Long Lane] and they build CJTS for boys. The boys were taken care of and the girls were just cast aside."

Camarca said he had only one girl go to York this year, a big improvement over a disastrous year last year when 13 girls at Stepping Stone were arrested after escaping and committing various offenses. Six were sent to York by the adult criminal court.

York does its best to accommodate the girls, but it's not set up to handle juveniles. Roland Bishop, a teacher at the prison, says the girls can't go anywhere, including the bathroom, without an escort.

"We've never had any DCF training. These girls are coming out of DCF placement, how do they handle these things? We don't know," said Bishop. "We're taking the Department of Correction model and tweaking it."

Bishop is proud of the way the staff at York has tried to help the girls that come to them, but he says as a teacher he has no idea what happens to them after they leave York whether or not they go on to get their GEDs, for example. And he says that although there have been no incidents involving the girls to date, if there was one an adult prisoner attacking a juvenile girl, for instance the consequences would be grave.

"If something happened we'd all be hung out to dry," says Bishop.

Camarca fights hard to not have any of his girls go to York. But the one he lost to York this year was unavoidable, he says.

"She wasn't doing well in treatment, she went in front of a judge and the judge said, 'I'm tired of seeing you. I told you that the last time you were here. Maybe York will straighten you out,'" said Camarca.

It took two and a half weeks of pleading with anyone who would listen, from the public defender to the prosecuting attorney to the clerk of the courts, but Camarca finally got the girl out of York and back to Stepping Stone, thanks to the same judge who had sent her away. He agreed to let her return.

"Some of my girls who have come back from York say it's the worst experience of their lives," says Camarca. "They're separate from the general population, but they still get a sense of being in prison."

Camarca says the shadow of York pushes him to keep girls in Stepping Stone even after they get in the "fight or flight" mode running rather than facing their issues because he doesn't have a good alternative. Nob Hill will provide the security of York without its risks, giving Camarca and others a place to put girls who need time to gather themselves, but who don't belong in prison.

"I think if we get this facility like we're talking about [in Bridgeport], then there's not the guilt factor in saying this girl's not making it here now, we need her to step away, and see what her needs are," said Camarca.

So why has it taken six years for DCF to launch its plan to build a secure facility for juvenile girls, and then only to find they have a tremendous fight on their hands from a neighborhood and a city that doesn't want it?

There doesn't appear to be a good answer. Sneed says the need for a secure facility has been under discussion since before 2003, but "everything happened very quickly with the closing of Long Lane and removing the girls."

"We never really caught up," she said. "We've been trying to look at designs, there were a lot of complicated steps. We put a lot of pressure on private providers to do what we need to do. That's what happened."

In a July 2008 briefing paper, the Office of the Child Advocate said that despite years of appeals to Governor Rell and the DCF, "None of the DCF-supported programs serving girls have met the expectations set forth in numerous reports by oversight agencies and DCF's own consultants."

That includes the absence of a secure facility for girls, a facility that is now ensnared in local politics and nightmarish public relations.

"Once again it's the girls who lose, the girls who wait, the girls who are on hold," said Milstein. "I don't care where [the secure facility] is, it just needs to happen fast. They need to stick to the time frame. The girls are the ones who lose."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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