Tuesday, July 26, 2005

More Youth Detention Outrages

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Teen's Prison Suicide Draws Outrage
As Probes Begin, Advocates Contend Again: Youths Don't Belong In Adult System
July 26, 2005 By COLIN POITRAS, DIANE STRUZZI And HILDA MUÑOZ Hartford Courant Staff Writers

A 17-year-old's suicide at a state prison Sunday is causing a furor among child and mental health advocates who have been fighting for years to get troubled youths out of the state's adult prison system.

"This is a terrible tragedy and our office has begun an investigation," state Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein said. Milstein's comments came the day after David Burgos of Bristol hanged himself with a bed sheet at the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, the state's high-security prison for young men aged 14 to 21. One child advocate questioned whether the conditions of Burgos' pretrial confinement were a violation of his constitutional rights.

Burgos had a history of mental illness and struggled with bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, relatives said.

He was sent to Manson in March for violating his probation after allegedly being caught stealing, his paternal aunt Neomi Perry said. Burgos' mother, Diana Gonzalez, said Monday that she doesn't understand why state officials allowed her son to sign himself out of DCF custody when he turned 16. Burgos had been under DCF custody and guardianship since he was 10.

He was "a special DCF case, a kid with a lot of needs," Gonzalez said as she prepared for her son's funeral.

"That's why I was surprised when DCF let him sign off at 16. Those are the questions and answers I want."

State officials are looking into Burgos' death, and several agencies began taking immediate steps Monday to ensure that other incarcerated children are safe.

The state Department of Correction, the Department of Children and Families, the Office of Protection and Advocacy and the Office of the Child Advocate are all launching investigations into Burgos' death.

"This individual was not convicted of a crime," said James McGaughey, executive director of the Office of Protection and Advocacy.

"You have to wonder if there were alternatives available instead of sending him to jail. That's of greater concern to me ... How does a kid this age wind up there, particularly someone with a history of mental illness?"

Relatives described Burgos as a charming teen, rambunctious at times, who loved playing the clown and dreamed of becoming a crocodile hunter or pro basketball player.

"He was a typical youth, always joking," Perry said. "

He was a lot like my father; he had a joke to everything. He was a loving kid, the illnesses that he had didn't help him and it overtook him.

"Burgos was placed in numerous treatment centers, hospitals and shelters over the past few years as state officials tried to find programs to help him, sources familiar with his case said. "

Undoubtedly this is a real tragedy and it gives us all an ...occasion to think about how to better help vulnerable young people," said Gary Kleeblatt, a DCF spokesman.

In response to Burgos' death, Kleeblatt said, DCF is sending social workers and mental health staff to Manson this week to make sure other children are safe and to help them cope with the suicide.

Of the 644 inmates housed at Manson on Monday, 18 were victims of abuse and neglect who were committed to DCF and are considered wards of the state. An additional 112 boys came from families with active abuse and neglect cases, Kleeblatt said.Kleeblatt said DCF has been working with correction officials in recent months to improve how incarcerated children are served, including allowing more DCF involvement in case conferences and discharge planning.

But Milstein and others say they are very concerned about how the children are being treated and they question whether they belong in an adult prison in the first place."I'm very concerned about this issue," Milstein said.

"There is an increase in the number of children ending up in the adult criminal system ...," she said.

"The adult criminal system is becoming another layer of the children's mental health safety net."

Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children's Advocacy in Hartford, said she visited Manson twice in the past two weeks and is deeply concerned about conditions there and how the boys are being treated.

Stone said she was especially concerned about the prison's practice of keeping pretrial youths locked in their cells 21½ hours a day during a two-week orientation after they first arrive.

In a letter Monday to Correction Commissioner Theresa C. Lantz, Stone said the forced segregation may be a violation of the youths' constitutional rights.

She urged Lantz to seek the immediate services of a national expert to assess the adolescents' needs with the intent of finding more appropriate conditions and programs for them.

Correction department spokesman Brian Garnett said the agency worked with national experts last year after nine suicides prompted Lantz to order a review of state prison policies and procedures.As a result, state prisons now use orientation units to reduce the opportunity for self-harm, Garnett said. When a person first comes into the prison system, he is subject to 15-minute checks by guards and is made to wear slip-on sneakers instead of sneakers with laces, he said.

"We do as much as humanly possible to protect these individuals from themselves," Garnett said.

Garnett said Burgos was not under a suicide watch Sunday.

During an unrelated bill-signing Monday in Hartford, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who spoke to Lantz Sunday night, expressed distress over Burgos' death. Responding to questions from the media, Rell said she was told that Burgos was on a 15-minute watch and took his life during one of the 15-minute intermissions. She said Lantz assured her that all protocols had been followed.

"It is just absolutely unfortunate," Rell said.

Burgos' death is refocusing attention on Connecticut's juvenile laws.

Connecticut is one of three states that treat youths as young as 16 as adults in their court system. The others are New York and North Carolina.

A measure to increase the age limit for juvenile offenders from 16 to 18 failed in the state legislature this year, as have similar measures before. The main problem, opponents say, is cost. Officials say it would be hugely expensive - tens of millions of dollars - to expand the juvenile court system to handle the extra caseload.

But advocates say the juvenile court system - with its focus on personal responsibility and rehabilitation rather than punishment - is more suitable for children and youths up to age 18 because of their different developmental and mental health needs.

"How many more kids have to die before we say we can't do this to children?" asked Sheila Amdur, a longtime mental health advocate and past president of the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

Courant Staff Writer Christopher Keating contributed to this story.

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