The Connecticut Supreme Court last week agreed that the Department of Children and Families has the final say over whether a juvenile is sent for out-of-state treatment or confinement, through a statute that takes that power away from juvenile judges.

The decision lets stand a year-old Appellate Court ruling, which was subsequently bolstered with new amendments to state law. Two years ago, as many as 300 youths were in out-of-state facilities, but the number has dropped to 70, as the DCF has focused on in-state placements.

Lawmakers and others say the new direction will save the state “millions” in treatment costs.

In Supreme Court Justice Dennis Eveleigh’s written decision in the case known as Jeffrey M., he quotes state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, on the subject. “[We have] heard a lot about what has not worked in the budget. One of the things that has worked, and it was one of the cries that we heard in a bipartisan way, is that we bring kids back. We have brought kids back. It has saved us millions of dollars and basically this [amendment] is to assure that we can continue those savings.”

But some attorneys who work with juvenile offenders don’t like the new policy. They say with the out-of-state facilities largely off limits, young lawbreakers can end up in Connecticut facilities that don’t offer what they need.

To be sure, there’s more than money at stake here. This case seems to be part of an ongoing turf battle between the DCF and juvenile judges. The child welfare agency is currently challenging the authority of juvenile judges to shorten DCF commitments through plea agreements, and argued a Supreme Court appeal of that issue on Dec. 5.

Cultural Shift

The out-of-state placement case was launched two years ago, when Bloomfield lawyer Aaron Romano was assigned to defend juvenile offender Jeffrey M. He was a 300-pound, 15-year old kid who had confessed to a strong-arm robbery in Hartford. Romano was mainly aiming to keep his client from being tried as an adult.

For many years, one accepted juvenile court alternative has been treatment in a specialized facility for juveniles, like Pennsulvania’s Glen Mills facility. Romano was about to learn that a cultural shift—and a change in the rules — was underway at DCF.

Over the course of two years, coinciding with the incoming administration of Governor Dannel P. Malloy, Connecticut began to scrutinize with an eagle eye the commitment of any juvenile to an out-of-state facility.

At the start of 2011, former Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz took the reins of DCF. Not surprisingly, Katz said in a recent interview, the culture of the previous administrations of governors John G. Rowland and M. Jodi Rell had increasingly emphasized safety above all else. Juvenile offenders “were being sent out of state at the rate of 30 a month – and being warehoused for years in some cases,” said Katz.

The cost, she said, was high, not just in room, board and treatment costs, but in results. Often, when the kids returned to their communities, they didn’t have the skills to cope, and promptly got into trouble again, Katz said.

When Romano got the case of Jeffrey M., his client had a record of engaging in street gang holdups. Jeffrey would knock the victim to the ground, sit on him, and his friends would steal wallets and cell phones and run off. Romano said Jeffrey was very susceptible to peer pressure and his mother couldn’t control him.

In juvenile court, before the late judge William Wollenberg, Romano, the prosecutor and Jeffrey’s mother agreed that placement in the Glen Mills facility for three years would be a better option than adult trial and possible prison.

When he was a public defender in Philadelphia, Romano said he got to know what Glen Mills offered.

“I visited it years ago. [Residents wear] blazers, white shirts, ties,” he said. “Many of these kids who had been living in drug-infested neighborhoods, with parents addicted to crack. They were literally put into a prep school setting. All of a sudden they went from 0 to 60, took pride in themselves.”

DCF, represented by assistant attorneys generals, moved to intervene to oppose Wollenberg’s ruling. Romano said the message from DCF lawyers was simple, to oppose out-of state transfer to the Pennsylvania facility. “It was policy, policy, policy,” he said.

Judge Wollenberg listened to the DCF arguments, but he ruled against allowing the agency to offically intervene. Katz’s department was not about to get shut out of court. Or the legislature, for that matter. It proceeded with effective appeals to both of these other branches.

On Jan. 24, 2012, the Appellate Court ruled that DCF should have been entitled to formally intervene. Although one section of the relevant statute said that a judge was authorized to place a child in any institution “permitted by law to care for children,” subsequent sections specified programs operated by DCF.

When Jeffrey M’s lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, the DCF turned to the legislature, which amended the statute in the regular 2012 session, and then again in a December special session to reinforce the right of DCF to decide where a child will be placed and when an out-of-state facility is appropriate.

Romano says the parties can no longer negotiate a remedy. Additionally, the juvenile judge’s “role has been eviscerated. A judge can only choose an in-state placement. Other than that, it’s up to DCF.”

If the justices of the Supreme Court were offended by a loss of judicial authority, it wasn’t reflected in the final Jeffrey M. ruling handed down last week. Justice Eveleigh, for a unanimous court, ruled for DCF, pointing to the new law that gives the agency first and last word on out-of-state placements.

Enough Options?

One thing Katz and Romano agree upon is that treatment works. Juveniles, unlike many adults, respond well to the right kind of treatment for everything from fire-setting behaviors to inappropriate sexual activities.

But where the two sides differ is on whether there are currently enough in-state treatment options.

Romano, and his associate, Naomi Fetterman, say that sending all challenging cases to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown is a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Most states send some of their most difficult cases to special out-of-state facilities, said Romano.

“Right now, the most popular facility for [addressing] fire-setting behavior is in Texas,” he said. “States all over the nation are sending kids to Texas. It’s been able to set up a business, essentially, and create local jobs for a fire-setting placement. Why shouldn’t Connecticut set [up a similar facility]? We could provide it for in-state kids, and be able to offer this service to other states as well.”

Katz has similar ideas in mind. She would like to see some former state-run facilities turned over to qualified private sector treatment providers. And on a more individualized scale, she said, specialists are being hired to provide treatment for specific problem behaviors at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School.

“It’s anything but a one-size-fits-all approach,” Katz said. •