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.
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 shiftand 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.