Teen's Lawyer Fights DCF For Out-Of-State Treatment

New Commissioner Of Department Of Children And Families Is Challenging A Long-Standing Policy Of Sending Juvenile Offenders Outside The State For Rehabilitation

By JOSH KOVNER, jkovner@courant.com

Everybody in the room at juvenile court — the judge, the prosecutor, the juvenile defendant's lawyer, his mom — was in agreement.

Jeffrey M., 15, who had pleaded guilty to an unarmed robbery, would go to Glen Mills School, a residential center for troubled kids in Concordville, Pa.

After all, the state had been sending juvenile offenders away, almost automatically, for 15 years or more, because the local treatment network is ill-equipped to handle the kids with more complex problems. The facilities that have the expertise, in places like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, have been pulling in millions of dollars of year in public money serving Connecticut's troubled kids. That's money that could be going to build a network here.

There are 11 Connecticut juvenile offenders at Glen Mills right now, with the most recent placement coming in June, just a couple of weeks before the Jeffrey M. case came to court earlier this month. The judge in the case, William L. Wollenberg, had no reservations about endorsing the measure.

But Wollenberg's order has collided with a sweeping policy shift, as Joette Katz, the new commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, tries to reverse the out-of-state exodus. DCF is now challenging out-of-state placements that were once routinely approved. The problem is the state still cannot offer good local alternatives to the outside treatment programs, and some kids in the system are getting caught in the middle.

DCF, over Wollenberg's objections, has blocked Jeffrey M's transfer to Glen Mills, a school with an unblemished regulatory record. DCF has proposed he go to Mount Saint John, a residential school in Deep River that takes kids coming out of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown, which is the state's controversial juvenile jail.

Mount Saint John has a troubled history that includes 28 substantiated cases of abuse and neglect by staff against kids since 1997, according to state records. The school had its licensed capacity reduced by nearly half in 2007 by DCF over concerns about inadequate staffing and physical aggression by both staff and residents there.

Jeffrey M., who has never been at the juvenile jail and had no record before the arrest for robbery, has remained in a locked juvenile detention facility in Hartford as his lawyer, Aaron Romano, fights to restore the Glen Mills placement.

According to Romano, Wollenberg commented from the bench earlier this month that he'd been sending kids to treatment programs all over the country for a decade with nary a peep from DCF.

But DCF is squawking now. Katz, who started in January, wasn't at the helm a week before she was facing questions as to why there were 360 kids in out-of-state facilities at a cost of about $40 million a year. Katz, a former state Supreme Court justice, said she didn't like it either, in part because the kids who go to outside residential programs remain there for substantially longer periods than those who are placed locally.

Katz vowed to dramatically reduce out-of-state placements and work with the private providers to develop a sufficient local treatment network in Connecticut.

She's acting on the first part of the promise now. There are some gray areas of the law, but out-of-state placements are generally the purview of the DCF commissioner, not superior court judges. Katz's staff is challenging transfers that are proceeding without her approval, and the action is reverberating through juvenile courthouses around the state.

In addition to Jeffrey M.'s case, DCF has blocked the transfer of a 15-year-old in New Britain who is deemed to need sex-offender treatment, according to the boy's lawyer, Naomi Fetterman. There's no such treatment available for youth in Connecticut, and a bed was lined up for the boy at an Iowa facility. The boy, who pleaded guilty to a domestic violence incident with his mother, remains in custody at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School.

Romano said these blanket objections are just as harmful as blindly sending juvenile offenders out of state. Fetterman is Romano's associate.

"They're trying to turn around an ocean liner on a dime, and the treatment programs in Connecticut aren't ready for it," Romano said.

Katz drew a line in the sand in a July 1 memo to the DCF staff, which coincidentally was right around the time the people involved in Jeffrey M.'s case were putting together their agreement. Katz wrote that effective immediately, she would approve all out-state placements or they wouldn't happen. She said some of these placements work well if they are convenient to the family or guardians, but short of that, she wouldn't endorse a transfer unless there was absolutely no way a kid could be accommodated in Connecticut.

At a July 12 court hearing, where the Jeffrey M. agreement was being disposed of , Assistant Attorney General Erik Lohr and three DCF officials came to Wollenberg's courtroom.

Lohr argued that outside placements were done at the discretion of the commissioner and that DCF wanted to put a hold on the judge's order sending Jeffrey M. to Glen Mills, according to documents filed later with the state Appellate Court.

Wollenberg indicated that he, the prosecutor and Romano had been working for some time on Jeffrey M.'s placement, and he lamented that suddenly, "the wheels [had] come off the wagon," according to Romano

The judge noted that DCF caseworkers had yet to speak with Jeffrey M., and he believed the agreement was in the boy's best interest, according to Romano.

When the July 12 hearing adjourned, Jeffrey M. went back to the detention facility.

On July 15, DCF requested and received a stay of Wollenberg's order from the Appellate Court. DCF lawyers argued that the judge overstepped his authority in approving an out-of-state placement and denying intervenor status to DCF.

Also on July 15, DCF proposed to Wollenberg that Jeffrey M. go to a Connecticut facility — Mount Saint John.

Romano and Fetterman have filed objections to the Appellate Court stay and DCF's opposition to Glen Mills. They said in interviews with The Courant that the Mount Saint John proposal was disingenuous at best.

In 2007, Mount St. John's licensed capacity was dropped from 50 to 32, over misconduct on the part of both staff and kids at the school.

The Appellate Court has yet to rule on DCF's appeal of Wollenberg's order.

Deputy DCF Commissioner Janice Gruendel, said DCF is working on an aggressive plan to completely revamp and expand the local treatment network.

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