The state's child-protection agency said Monday it is banning prone, or face-down, restraints in its locked units for boys and girls, following recommendations from a national juvenile-justice expert and a scathing report from the state child advocate.
The advocate's office viewed hours of surveillance video tapes that depicted violent take-downs of non-combative teenagers.
Joette Katz, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, released an "action plan" Monday outlining dozens of reforms and policy changes at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School for boys and the Pueblo unit for girls in Middletown to increase safety, treatment, and data collection.
A DCF spokesman said staff members have been told that that prone restraints are no longer permitted. DCF had barred its private contractors from using prone restraints in group homes and other programs, but regularly used them at the training school and at the Pueblo unit.
Other changes include: limiting the use of handcuffs and shackles; sending counselors to the scene of potential restraints and into seclusion rooms to assess the youths; limiting seclusions to four hours; mandating a response from a supervisor as soon as situation starts to escalate; substantially increasing documentation and holding staff briefings after every crisis.
Juvenile-justice and children's rights advocates have long demanded that DCF cease its reliance on restraints and seclusion, increase mental-health treatment in the locked units, add clinicians in the evenings and weekends when family and other outside issues often arise for the teenagers in the units, and begin collecting data on the effectiveness of its programs, the performance of its staff members, and the outcomes of the children in the system.
In a September 14, 2014, article in The Courant on restraints and seclusion at both locked units, DCF officials said that staff members do not use restraints to gain compliance from a youth who is only disobeying directions and is not being physically threatening.
"We don't use non-compliance to put our hands" on teenagers confined in the units, DCF's William Rosenbeck, superintendent of the juvenile training school, said at the time.
But in a 68-page report released last Wednesday, Child Advocate Sarah Eagan summarized the content of hours of surveillance tapes at the training school and Pueblo that showed multiple staff members circling, pinning to the floor, and handcuffing and shackling youth who were not listening to orders, but who were not physically aggressive.
Eagan's investigative team also documented 225 episodes of seclusion that lasted more than four hours – the nationally accepted limit for isolating youth. In one video, staff members are shown pinning a youth against the wall of the seclusion room. A nurse enters the picture, snakes a hand past the heads of the staff members, touches the boy on the shoulder or the collar, and then leaves. She was in the room for six seconds.
Eagan also reported on situations that escalated into full-blown confrontations between staff and youth, with no response from a clinician – a psychiatrist or a psychologist – and no attempt to use any alternatives to a physical restraint.
Eagan found that some youths attempted to harm themselves before or after a restraint, which Chief State Public Defender Susan Storey said "shocks the conscience."
Eagan on Monday acknowledged "the responsiveness of this emergency action plan and the urgency DCF brought to developing and disseminating it."
She said it was important that "the state to support its remediation effort with outside expertise and audits of progress," while at the same time "consider alternatives to CJTS and Pueblo as part of Connecticut's juvenile justice and criminal justice reform efforts."
On Monday, spokespersons for two of the unions representing workers at the training school and the Pueblo unit said the child advocate's report was biased and that most of the boys who come through the training school and its sports, educational, vocational and social programs, are better for it.
"Working in a locked environment is stressful and can pose challenges. We believe that we have been successful in overcoming these barriers to provide a supportive and nurturing environment for the youth that reside here. But that part of the story was not included in the (child advocate's) report and not reflected in subsequent media accounts," said Paula Dillon of the Service Employees International Union, Local 2001, and Paul Lavallee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 2663.
"An unbiased and truly objective advocate for children would look across the board at all of the services provided and note both the positives and negatives for the young men at CJTS and young women at Pueblo. An impartial advocate would have included success stories and the improvements that continue at both facilities," their statement said.
On July 13, Robert Kinscherff, a national expert hired by DCF, released a report saying that restraints were "clear intervention failures." He said DCF should increase the interaction between clinicians and youth, and he suggested the state might consider taking the money used to run the locked units and create individual treatment programs for each youth instead. Both the Kinscherff and Eagan reports noted that DCF had improved conditions and programming at the training school over the years.
It costs $271,500 to house one boy for one year at the training school. DCF has been limiting the numbers of boys and girls housed at both units over the last year.
Monday, the Connecticut Juvenile-Justice Alliance said the training school is no longer sustainable.
The alliance said in a statement that it "applauds the action steps outlined by (DCF). But we strongly advise that these steps be an interim measure only and that the state work toward closing the facility."
Katz, in a statement Monday, said that the Kinscherff and Eagan reports reinforce "the critical need to make changes to improve responses to these youth, so many of whom have experienced traumas that contribute to the behaviors …"
Katz said staff members have been instructed to "phase out" the use of handcuffs and shackles over the next six months. The goal is to only use them when transporting a youth across campus, Katz said.
She said from this point on, seclusion will only be used if a youth is a danger to him or herself, or others, Any youth that hasn't stabilized after four hours of seclusion will receive a medical evaluation.
Eagan's office reviewed cases where teenagers remained in seclusion for as long as two days, with breaks for meals and hygiene.
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