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Secure youth housing facility coming to Hamden has parents, advocates concerned
New Haven Register - 9/11/2020
Sep. 11--HAMDEN -- Some local parents are wary of plans to open a secure housing facility next month for adolescent boys involved with the judicial system.
It's not because they don't want a supportive treatment center in town, but they're cautious about its intended nature.
The judicial branch inherited the responsibility of handling children in the juvenile justice system from the Department of Children and Families about two years ago. Since then, the branch has begun to contract private entities for residential programs in addition to maintaining two detention centers in Bridgeport and Hartford.
Renovations are underway for a new secure residential center on Sherman Avenue run by Community Partners in Action for adolescent boys as part of the care model known as Re-Re-Entry, Goal-oriented, Individualized, Opportunity to Nurture Success (REGIONS).
"It's not a detention center," said Beth Hines, executive director of Community Partners in Action.
CPA operated the building on Sherman Avenue since the early 2000s, until about four years ago, Hines said, at which time the organization vacated it.
Now they're in the middle of renovating it to securely house boys ages 14-18 involved with the criminal justice system for up to six months, providing education, vocational training, health care and other supportive services.
Hines said it's a therapeutic environment with the goal of helping boys transition back into the community instead of entering the adult judicial system.
They plan to open eight beds beginning in early October, with the intention of adding eight more in the next year.
Hines' organization opened a REGIONS program in Hartford last June, but the Hamden building will be the first one that's physically secure, meaning boys can't leave at will.
Venezia Michalsen is one of several Hamden parents who were concerned about the facility when they recently learned it was coming to town.
She and other parents that advocate on behalf of children with disabilities, especially concerning the intersections of race and criminal justice, emailed local representatives and town officials voicing their concern with the project.
Michalsen said because of a lack of information from the town about the project, they initially were worried it would be a juvenile detention center.
The worries included imprisonment of children with disabilities, the over-represented number of Black and brown children in such centers, the lack of resources and support associated with detention centers and other issues.
"We're not against therapeutic restorative facilities," Michalsen said. "There are going to be kids that need places to go and I want Hamden to be a place for kids to be helped and nourished. If that's the type of place this is, I want it here. I want those places in my neighborhood if they're restorative."
Rhonda Stearley-Herbert, a spokeswoman for the judicial branch, said the populations at the community-based facilities will be similar to the youth in the state juvenile detention centers and provide the same level of security.
"The facility will differ in that has been designed to provide the appropriate space (for) all elements of the REGIONS therapeutic / treatment model, including dedicated space for education, vocational education/training and recreation, and is located in the community," she said in an email.
Michalsen said without trauma-informed supportive services addressing the multifaceted issues youths have, the effort of putting any children in facilities is wrong.
"If we're transitioning to something that's trauma-informed and evidenced based then I'm happy to have it in our town," Michalsen said. "But there should be more transparency in town when things like this are coming up."
Gary Roberge, executive director of the judicial branch's Court Support Services Division, said relying on private entities to provide such services has been a change for Connecticut, because these children traditionally have been housed in large, state-run facilities, the CT Mirror reported in January.
These small community-based facilities are much different from places such as the former Connecticut Juvenile Training School but the judicial branch has had trouble finding providers to operate secure, community-based housing facilities.
The judicial branch issued two requests for proposals for secure facilities in the community. One of the responses did not meet the minimum qualifications of the bid and the second resulted in the current contract for the Hamden facility, Stearley-Herbert said.
There is a third RFP for another secure facility that closes Oct. 27, she said.
They also established three staff-secure treatment facilities through RFP -- one in Waterbury run by Connecticut Junior Republic, one in New Milford run by Boys and Girls Village and one in Hartford run by Community Partners in Action.
Since the program is relatively new, Hines said they don't have data on outcomes or recidivism yet.
Michalsen said the state should be divesting from correctional solutions.
"The less we rely on these criminal justice systems ...then the better off we'll be," she said. "Whether they're great facilities or bad facilities they (kids) still shouldn't be in facilities."
Racial demographics and data on youths with disabilities was not immediately available from the judicial branch.
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