Attorney Dan Krisch
Attorney Dan Krisch ()

I come to praise DCF, not to bury it. A magnet for criticism in the best of times, the state Department of Children and Families has drawn torrents of outrage over the past two weeks for its decision to transfer a 16-year-old transgender youth to an adult prison. Lost in that flood of well-intentioned indignation is an important, but a largely unasked, and perhaps unanswerable, question: How does a parent with 4,000 children balance the good of each individual child with the good of them all?

Before I turn to that question, a few facts: On Feb. 4, the DCF petitioned the juvenile court for permission to transfer the girl in question (“Jane Doe” due to her age), either to York Correctional Institution in Niantic, or to Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire. Both are run by the Department of Corrections, not by DCF; neither is a suitable long-term home for Jane Doe. York is a prison for adult women and Manson is a facility for juvenile delinquent boys.

DCF acted under a statute, Connecticut General Statutes § 17a-12, that permits such transfers if DCF proves to the court that the transferee “is dangerous to himself or herself or others or cannot be safely held” at a DCF-run facility. Although § 17a-12 is seldom-used, DCF did not invoke it in Jane Doe’s case on a whim. One week before the petition, Jane Doe had assaulted a staff member at a juvenile program in Massachusetts after a different staff member had restrained her from leaving the facility.

Jane Doe’s attack left the staff member with a concussion, an eye injury and bite marks and bruises on her head, face, chest and arms. While there are questions about Jane Doe’s motive for the assault – the facility fired one of the staff members after an internal investigation into the restraint – there is little question about Jane Doe’s history of violence: She once stabbed another girl with a fork and has committed at least 10 other assaults.

I do not mean to suggest that Jane Doe is evil, or even truly culpable for her violent actions. To the contrary, Jane Doe is exactly whom DCF exists to protect and help heal: A victim of years of horrific physical, sexual and emotional abuse, whose transgender status makes her a target for other violent youths and leaves her especially vulnerable to maltreatment.

Faced with the double exigency of a child both violent and uniquely vulnerable to violence, and responsible both for her safety and the safety of its other charges and employees, DCF acted as the law permits. Acted is the key word. In the ensuing uproar, some have impugned DCF’s motives, while others have decried the very notion that DCF ever would seek to lock up one of the children in its care. The temptation to crucify DCF, or to demonize its commissioner, is an unfortunate distraction. We should ask, of course, whether DCF acted properly, but we should be happy that DCF acted.

With the monumental task of ensuring the health and welfare of 4,000 children, the greatest danger is inaction. Institutional stagnation. The weight of the process preventing any rapid movement, no matter the crisis. (Indeed, Commissioner Joette Katz’ more ardent detractors might recall that her appointment – was it really only three short years ago? – was praised precisely because she would shake up an agency that had grown moribund. If you buy a Ferrari, don’t expect it to drive in the slow lane.)

More bad things happen when an agency like DCF sits on its hands than when it acts quickly and later has to give its action a second look. In Jane Doe’s case, had DCF stood idly by while she attacked someone else, or was herself the victim of an attack, many of the same folks howling for blood because of DCF’s petition likely would be howling because DCF ignored the warning signs. Better that DCF acted, even if hindsight shows wrongly, because now there is the opportunity to craft a long-term solution for Jane Doe instead of having to sift through the rubble of a tragedy.

He who saves a single life, the Talmud tells us, saves the world entire. In Connecticut, the burden of saving the lives of abused and neglected children – one Jane Doe at a time – falls on DCF. In carrying out this awesome responsibility, full of daunting decisions but devoid of clear solutions, there is some comfort in fact that DCF followed Benjamin Jowett’s maxim to “get it done and let them howl.” The alternative, I fear, would have been far worse.