An Opportunity to Provide Better Care

The recently approved Connecticut state budget makes an important change in the management of the state’s juvenile justice system that concerns some, but also provides an opportunity to achieve better results on behalf of children.

As of January 1, responsibility for the management of the most at-risk youth in Connecticut’s juvenile justice system will switch from the Department of Children and Families to the Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch. The change is tied closely to the plan to close the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown by June of 2018.

The change has raised some concerns for those most familiar with programs that have been traditionally run by DCF with the goal of helping criminally involved children get their lives on the right track before it is too late. The cases DCF social workers handle often involve troubled family situations, substance abuse, mental health issues and school truancy. Contrary to the therapeutic approach offered by DCF, the Court Support Services Division has traditionally been more concerned with ensuring public safety, often through incarceration.

This approach runs counter to understood best practices in juvenile justice and it also runs counter to the policy of the administration of Governor Dannel Malloy, who has sought to create a “second chance society” in which integrating people into society is given a higher priority than locking them up.

Despite legitimate concerns, this shift in policy provides Connecticut an opportunity to improve services to at-risk youth while protecting the community from the criminal behavior that often lands them in the criminal justice system. Our twin goals should be to reduce crime committed by youth and help children who have been declared delinquent to become productive members of society.

The best way to accomplish these goals is through a model of individualized care for at-risk youth that is community based and relies as little as possible on locked facilities. Incarceration without therapeutic programming leads almost inevitably to more trouble as children mature into young adults. Whether juvenile justice programming in Connecticut is housed in one agency, or another, under the Executive Branch or the Judicial Branch, does not matter in the end as long as the system itself is designed first and foremost to foster rehabilitation.

Earlier this year, the Children’s League of Connecticut(CLOC), an association of seven companies which provide social services to at-risk youth, put forward a detailed plan to improve the outcome of individual cases managed by Connecticut’s juvenile justice system. Those recommendations are still valid regardless of the latest policy change.

We can achieve greater results for children if we can move them out of incarceration as quickly as possible. Length of incarceration should be determined based on on-going individual case assessment rather than on the fulfillment of a fixed-term sentence set by a juvenile court.

To make sure we can deliver services based on individual and family needs – in a community based setting – we continue to advocate for the establishment of transitional care centers located strategically in different regions of the state. This would allow juveniles to move back and forth on a care continuum based on their progress, or lack of progress.

Connecticut has seen good results in the last decade in the area of juvenile justice reform. While the decision to place greater responsibility for this policy with the Judicial Branch presents concerns, it is also an opportunity to help children who face a variety of challenges to live more fulfilling lives.

Dan Lyga is the chief operating officer of the Children’s Center of Hamden and a member of the Children’s League of Connecticut.

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