As a 16-year-old transgender youth remains languishing in solitary confinement at an adult prison, legal questions have been raised about a rarely-used law that has allowed her to be held without being convicted of a criminal offense.
The balance between the youth’s rights under federal law, and the state law intended to protect her from causing harm to herself or others, is at the center of a discussion her lawyers are having as they try to reach a compromise with the Department of Children and Families.
The case made national headlines after the troubled youth, who was born a male but identifies as a female, was transferred on April 8 to the state’s women’s prison, York Correctional Institute. The case touched a nerve with LGBT and juvenile rights advocates and others, and on a recent Friday a group of about 20 people, called Justice for Jane, demonstrated outside DCF offices in Hartford.
“It’s a travesty,” said the teen’s lawyer, Aaron Romano, of Bloomfield. He said the teen known as “Jane Doe” has been in lockdown in the women’s prison for most of the day. “It’s tantamount to solitary,” Romano said.
On Friday afternoon, DCF issued a statement saying the DCF Commissioner Joette Katz met with “Jane Doe,” and they discussed how DCF can help her find healthier ways to “address the terrible abuse and trauma she has suffered and how important it is that she receives treatment so that she can heal and more forward from those ordeals.”
“In addition, the Commissioner talked to her about continuing efforts with her lawyers and the Department of Corrections to move her to a more therapeutic treatment setting that will benefit her over the long term,” according to the DCF statement.
Though the teen was not arrested, DCF officials relied on a rarely used law to transfer the teen from juvenile facilities to the prison. DCF has only done so once before, more than 10 years ago, state records show.
DCF said she was too violent to be kept in DCF custody. Romano said she belongs in a treatment center with a peer group and adult mentors, rather than in a prison.
LGBT advocates say that it’s a positive step that she is currently being housed in a prison for women. But her lawyers say her imprisonment violates two federal laws, the Prison-Rape Elimination Act, and the Juvenile Delinquent Protection Act.
The teen has been in lockdown for 22 hours a day, according to a written statement she made that was released by her lawyers on Thursday.
“Now, I am sitting in a room at the end of a hallway in the psych ward at York Correctional Institution,” she wrote in the statement. “I’m in my room 22 hours a day with a guard staring at me — even when I shower and go to the bathroom. It’s humiliating. Women constantly scream and cry and it was hard to sleep. They moved me down a different hallway where it’s not as crazy. I tell myself that this is just a nightmare, but it doesn’t end.”
Lawyers interviewed about the case said that DCF has a tough job to balance the concerns of all involved.
Michael Agranoff, a lawyer who helps adult clients who have problems with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, said that when DCF has guardianship of a juvenile, they try to place them with either with a relative, foster home or group home. That is what is done in 99 percent of the cases. “Here, there was no facility that was safe,” Agranoff said.
Agranoff said that he isn’t sure what DCF could have done differently here.
“You have to try to help the kid but you also have to protect society. Where to keep the kid and how to best help the kid are two separate problems,” Agranoff said. “The second problem is finding where to keep the kid for everyone’s safety.”
Another issue DCF faces is finding ways to help the teen, and Agranoff acknowledged that resources in that area are very limited. “Sometimes when a person is severely abused, they carry those scars throughout their lives … ,” Agranoff said.
On April 8, Senior Judge Burton Kaplan in Bridgeport ruled that “Jane Doe” is a convicted delinquent, assaulting public safety/emergency personnel in the Bridgeport Juvenile Detention Center while awaiting disposition on charges she led others out of custody. “(Jane Doe) is dangerous to herself or others or cannot be held at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) or any other facility within the State available to DCF.
This is the court where (Jane Doe) was originally committed and it has considered (Jane Doe’s) best interest in ruling on this motion to transfer,” Kaplan wrote.
The state Department of Corrections released a statement on the case after the judge’s decision, saying they would prepare to carry out the court order.
“We will do everything in our power to provide a safe, secure and humane environment for this individual, as we would for any other person under our supervision,” said Commissioner James Dzurenda. A transgender individual is defined as a person whose gender identity and/or internal sense of feeling male or female is different from the person’s assigned sex at birth, according to the DOC statement.
The youth has been held at the adult prison ever since.
The rarely used law that allowed the transfer to happen was Connecticut General Statutes 17a-12, which states that when “in the opinion of the commissioner, or the commissioner’s designee, a person fourteen years of age or older is dangerous to himself or herself or others or cannot be safely held at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School” or another DCF facility, they may petition the court for a transfer.
Lawyers involved in the case said they were “quietly” working on finding a solution that could get the youth out of prison.•