Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Connecticut Courts- Kids wrapped in chains

Wanted: Alternative Programs To Help Treat Troubled Youth
April 4, 2005
By COLIN POITRAS, Hartford Courant Staff Writer (ctnow.com)

Jennifer Bertrand will never forget the day her 15-year-old daughter shuffled into Rockville Juvenile Court in handcuffs and leg shackles like a criminal. It was the lowest point in Bertrand's years-long struggle to get Alexis, who has bipolar disorder, the mental health treatment she needs.

Alexis, a former honor student who won academic awards, sang in the chorus and ran track and field, begged her mother that day not to look at her, to turn away.

No one told Bertrand that her daughter might get arrested when she went to court two years ago seeking state help for Alexis as a "family with service needs."

By then, Bertrand said, she was desperate. Alexis' behavior was getting worse. She was acting out, refusing to go to therapy, leaving home in the middle of the night, cutting herself. The family was living in East Windsor.

A local police officer suggested court services. Bertrand thought that might help.But, rather than getting help, Bertrand said, she watched helplessly as court officials threw her troubled daughter into one detention center after another for violating court rules about staying in school.

Bertrand said her daughter was beaten up, hospitalized, abused by other girls in detention.

"She's never going to be the same," Bertrand said, her voice laced with guilt.

"She's not my little girl. She's changed. It just made her so hard, so distant. She won't get close to anyone anymore. She won't trust her family because we did this to her."

Today, Bertrand and other parents will testify in favor of a bill that calls for diverting troubled kids - so-called "status offenders" like Alexis - away from the juvenile justice system, which proponents say should be reserved for more dangerous delinquents. Status offenders - children and youth who act out of control at home, habitually run away or avoid school - are only guilty of violating court orders, the bill's supporters say.

They have committed no crimes.

"We have to deal with status offenders in a non-criminal way," said Martha Stone, director of the Center for Children's Advocacy at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

"We need to provide alternatives to these children without incarcerating them."Stone's proposal, House Bill 6980, calls for faster intervention for such youths by requiring the state judicial branch and the Department of Children and Families to develop more intensive crisis counseling services, specialized foster homes, mentoring programs, truancy reduction programs and family mediation.

The bill also prohibits placing status offenders in high-security detention centers and seeks a mandatory 90-day diversion period for youth, who may benefit from a mental health assessment and services.

The need for more services has never been more clear, child advocates say. Three in every four incarcerated youths between the ages of 10 and 17 have a diagnosable mental health disorder, according to a five-year study by the National Center on Substance Abuse at Columbia University released last year. Other research has shown that many incarcerated juveniles also have alcohol or substance abuse problems and have been the victims of abuse or neglect.

In Connecticut, the number of family with service needs referrals nearly doubled from 1994 to 2004, according to judicial branch statistics. There were 2,098 referrals in 1994 compared to 4,161 in the 2003-04 fiscal year.

Diverting youths from detention and giving them counseling or other intervention services also saves the state money, advocates say.

It costs the state $300 a day to house a child in juvenile detention. Full-blown intervention programs such as Wraparound Milwaukee, a national model, cost $158 a day, Stone said. Connecticut would not be breaking new ground. Mandatory diversion periods for status offenders are already in place in Florida and New York. Thirteen states, including New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, prohibit incarcerating status offenders in detention halls.

Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, said state officials tried to help children and families by creating the service needs program. But it's not working as well as expected.

"Many of the programs we have now were created with good intentions but the connections have not been made," said Walker, who has a master's degree in social work. Walker has sponsored a scaled-down version of Stone's bill prohibiting incarceration for status offenders.

She said the judicial branch, which runs the state's juvenile detention centers, and DCF, which helps troubled children, need to work together, share information and create more alternatives.

Juvenile court judges and court officers often find their options limited for helping troubled teens and resort to local detention centers in a last-ditch effort to keep kids safe, Walker said. The children sometimes languish in detention for months, waiting for an assessment or an available bed.Walker said those decisions harm minority youth the most.

Records show youth of color make up three of every four youths in state detention centers, even though they account for less than one in four youngsters in the general population.

"Detention should be reserved for kids who break the law," said Rep. Gail K. Hamm, D-East Hampton. Hamm has proposed a bill somewhere between Walker's and Stone's. Hers prohibits detention for status offenders and calls for the creation of more specialized group homes.

"The system right now doesn't have the right orders in place, it's all boilerplate," Hamm said.

Monday's public hearing on various juvenile justice bills takes place before the legislature's judiciary committee starting at 1 p.m. As for Bertrand, her daughter is finally back home. New medications Alexis received while at the state's Riverview Hospital for Children and Youth have helped. Alexis, now 17, is working and expects to graduate this year.

There are still hurdles to face, Bertrand said. Alexis would not participate in this story and still struggles to understand what her mother did, and why now she is going public.Bertrand said she is doing it so other moms won't have to.

"Parents are supposed to be able to protect their children," Bertrand said.

"That's our job. No parent should have to lay in bed at night knowing their mentally ill child is falling asleep afraid."

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