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October 12, 2023

CT lawmakers question response to group home accused of abuse, neglect

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR Department of Children and Families Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes watches as Lisa Daymond speaks to the Connecticut General Assembly's Children's Committee.

Legislators heard testimony Wednesday from various officials on the state’s response to a Harwinton group home that’s facing allegations of physical and sexual abuse, a lack of supervision of kids and insufficient therapeutic care for children with histories of severe trauma. 

Department of Children and Families Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes spoke publicly about the problems at The Bridge Family Center in Harwinton during the hearing before the legislative Committee on Children. 

Lawmakers questioned the commissioner and heard testimony from other officials about the state’s probes into the allegations of abuse, what the state was doing to prevent future issues and how they planned to address mental health care for kids who have encountered trauma.

The Harwinton group home is one of the state’s Short-Term Assessment and Respite homes, also known as STAR homes. They’re intended to be shorter stays — 30 to 90 days — before another placement for kids in foster care and don’t offer high levels of therapeutic care.

But a report from the Office of the Child Advocate released Wednesday says that the length of children’s stays are sometimes far longer than the ideal, ranging from five to 533 days. The report also notes that DCF data shows there are 31 children in STAR placements, the majority of whom are children of color. Only three of the children are white, according to the report.

The Bridge Family Center operates four STAR homes as well as other community programs on state contract. The nonprofit reported about $8.87 million in total revenue, including its state dollars and grant money, on its latest tax form. The home in Harwinton was mostly populated by girls ages 12 to 17, Dorantes said Wednesday.

Legislators said the hearing was the beginning of a longer conversation about how the state can better support the children, many of whom are in foster care and have been moved frequently around in placements.

“Our job here in the legislature and especially for the Committee on Children is to ensure that all kids lead happy, healthy lives in the state of Connecticut,” said committee co-chair Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire. “And that means sometimes we have to ask the tough questions. Sometimes we have to hear the tough answers.”

The problems at the facility were first reported by Connecticut Inside Investigator, which revealed allegations of children being sex trafficked at the facility, sexual abuse of children by staff members and children leaving the facility for extended periods of time without supervision. 

A mother of one of the children housed at the Harwinton facility filed a lawsuit last month alleging that her daughter was physically assaulted and not provided proper care and supervision while residing there. 

The lawsuit claimed that the facility was negligent and that it, among other things, “failed to act affirmatively and proactively monitor and supervise its agents, servants and/or employees to prevent injury to the residents.” 

The Office of the Child Advocate issued its report Wednesday on the group home. It outlined systemic problems and recommendations to support the state’s overburdened mental health care system. Child Advocate Sarah Eagan also provided brief comments on the report at Wednesday’s public meeting.

“It’s not about fault,” Eagan said. “But it is about system design and planning, and we are responsible for that.” 

Committee on Children Hearing

Margaret Hann, executive director of The Bridge Family Center, submitted written testimony to lawmakers, which a legislative clerk read aloud at the onset of the hearing. In her statement, Hann talked about the facility’s reputation for serving youth turned away by other providers.

As problems at the location significantly increased in the last fiscal year, Hann said, so has occupancy. She said many of the adolescent girls have been victims of “unspeakable traumatic events” and officials have worked to ensure that staff are properly trained to assist them. 

She also said the facility took “expeditious steps,” including suspension and termination, when officials became aware of misconduct by staff members. Hann said the facility, which she said was under-resourced, has continued working with DCF to “strengthen the services we provide.” 

The Bridge Family Center’s top director said it is “tremendously frustrating” to watch others make false accusations and spread misinformation about the care provider. The same problems could occur “with any provider in Connecticut due to the nature of the work we do,” she added. 

“Providers are continually being asked to do more with less,” Hann wrote. “When negative media campaigns are legitimized, it has a chilling effect on the work we do, as well as our ability to bear the fiscal and human capital costs associated with it.”

Dorantes, joined by several members of her administration, testified for the vast majority of the two-hour hearing. She fielded questions from lawmakers about what happened at the Harwinton location, what steps DCF took to address any problems and what changes the agency can make to best serve the children under the state’s care. 

She was first asked by Linehan if the problems in Harwinton were typical of STAR facilities. Dorantes said behavioral problems with kids at The Bridge Family Center were not unfamiliar but that she saw the reports of child abuse and neglect as outliers. 

Linehan also questioned whether the allegations of sexual abuse by staff members were handled in a timely fashion. Lisa Daymond, director of DCF’s Careline operation, responded that action was immediate and that the agency works collaboratively with law enforcement, human resources and other stakeholders during the investigation process. 

The commissioner was asked by Sen. Lisa Seminara, a ranking Republican on the children’s committee who represents Harwinton, about whether the frequent incidents of abuse and neglect ever led the agency to consider not renewing the facility’s contract. 

“It’s hard to look at things in hindsight and say what we would have, should have, could have done at that particular time,” Dorantes responded. “I will say that each of those incidents were best investigated and evaluated on their merit and that we continue to work with this provider and their ability to make sure that they maintain staff that can keep it safe.”

She received questions from several other legislators, including Rep. Vincent Candelora, the House minority leader, about the state’s evaluation of children who reside in STAR facilities. They said they believe Connecticut could better serve some of the kids by placing them in higher-level patient care settings with therapeutic services. 

“The worst thing in the world we could be doing is taking the child out of a home that’s experienced trauma and then putting them into a different setting to receive additional trauma,” said Candelora, R-North Branford. “That’s something that I think we’re all interested in stopping. And so I’m concerned globally that the STAR home setting isn’t appropriate for all these different children that are being placed there.”

Planned testimony was cut short because of a two-hour time limit, but Eagan testified for a few minutes about her 19-page report toward the end of the hearing. Harwinton Ambulance Chief Kevin Ferrarotti was scheduled to speak, but the committee didn’t have time to get to his testimony.

Eagan emphasized the need for more support for mental health care for kids in the state. The topic has been in the spotlight at the state level and nationally for the past couple of years as many kids have struggled with mental health problems following the COVID-19 pandemic.

More kids nationally have reported increased levels of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse in recent years. In 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on the country’s youth mental health crisis.

“We have logjams at every level of care,” Eagan said Wednesday.

“There are parents who have begged and pleaded and cried for care for their child and nobody should have to do that.” 

Child advocate report

The Connecticut state legislature focused on children’s mental health issues in 2022 and added more support during the last session. Over the summer, urgent crisis centers opened around the state to offer emergency mental health care for kids and keep them out of emergency rooms.

But Eagan has questioned whether long-term funding will be available to support the crisis centers, which were lauded as a game changer for Connecticut’s children. Her office’s report found that the mental health system in Connecticut is strained because of “chronic underfunding” and a “persistent workforce crisis.”

“When services are not available when children first present with emerging needs, children get worse and their prognosis for positive mental health and permanency diminish,” the report says.

The report details some of the issues with the group home and makes recommendations for improving care for kids.

The report also explains some of the STAR home kids’ histories of trauma. In one case, a child had been in DCF care since 2021. She had severe child abuse history and several mental health diagnoses including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  She’d had 23 placements since entering DCF care, including multiple STAR placements.

Another child had been in DCF guardianship for three years with multiple STAR placements. Her father is incarcerated, and it’s unlikely she’ll be able to reunify with her mother. She said “that at times she feels hopeless as she has nothing to lose because she has no one,” the report says.

“These children, boys and girls, pack their belongings again and again in bags to move from one state placement to another, never knowing what the next day will bring, never being able to imagine their future, and, as so many child advocates and providers have told OCA in recent months, struggling day to day without hope for themselves and their futures,” the report says.

People who work directly with the girls in these programs have described them to Office of the Child Advocate as “without hope,” the report says.

The OCA’s investigation found that youth in the STAR program have significant trauma and mental health needs, and that the STAR homes are not designed or equipped to meet those needs.

This has led to more incidents “affecting the safety and wellbeing of the children,” the report says.

Lawmakers asked Wednesday about reports that emergency calls to the Harwinton home had strained local law enforcement and emergency responders.

Dorantes said that it’s not out of the norm for group homes to have a high number of calls for assistance, which could take up more resources in a small town.

The OCA report also says that “reliance on STAR homes reflects a flawed system design,” because of the inadequate treatment for kids in those placements.

Dorantes said during her testimony that the instances of abuse had been responded to quickly and that many of the children in the STAR homes had complicated needs. But the state is working to improve their care, she said.

They worked with the Harwinton group home to compile a corrective action plan in July. The plan includes further staff training, more documentation, more consistent therapeutic plans, more supervision of kids, and physical repairs at the facility, among other measures.

OCA’s report noted that as early as April 2022, a DCF licensing review said that the youth weren’t getting their minimum one-hour per week of individual therapy and two hours per week of group therapy.

Dorantes told lawmakers she is open to conversations to “make sure Connecticut’s children have what they need.”

“I will also say that it’s not the beginning for the department and that hopefully with the responses that we’ve provided here today, there’s a level of competence with the department and the way that we respond to incidences, and the trust that we have in our providers,” Dorantes said Wednesday.

The OCA report makes five recommendations, including that the STAR homes need more support and training, more monitoring and supplemental staffing. It also recommends an “immediate injection” of money to support home and community-based services.

It also says DCF should strengthen program and incident oversight. It recommends using the state’s Gender Responsive Workgroup to find better models of care for girls with complicated trauma and needs.

It also recommends that state agencies issue a report to the Appropriations Committee for budget changes in the next legislative session to improve treatment for this population of girls.

“We do have a lot of work to do in our system,” Eagan said. “And part of the problem is that we’re long past the canaries in a coal mine. Because the canaries sang in the coal mine a long time ago.”

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