At the start of 2011, former Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz took the reins of DCF. Not surprisingly, Katz said in a recent interview, the culture of the previous administrations of governors John G. Rowland and M. Jodi Rell had increasingly emphasized safety above all else. Juvenile offenders "were being sent out of state at the rate of 30 a month and being warehoused for years in some cases," said Katz.
The cost, she said, was high, not just in room, board and treatment costs, but in results. Often, when the kids returned to their communities, they didn't have the skills to cope, and promptly got into trouble again, Katz said.
When Romano got the case of Jeffrey M., his client had a record of engaging in street gang holdups. Jeffrey would knock the victim to the ground, sit on him, and his friends would steal wallets and cell phones and run off. Romano said Jeffrey was very susceptible to peer pressure and his mother couldn't control him.
In juvenile court, before the late judge William Wollenberg, Romano, the prosecutor and Jeffrey's mother agreed that placement in the Glen Mills facility for three years would be a better option than adult trial and possible prison.
When he was a public defender in Philadelphia, Romano said he got to know what Glen Mills offered.
"I visited it years ago. [Residents wear] blazers, white shirts, ties," he said. "Many of these kids who had been living in drug-infested neighborhoods, with parents addicted to crack. They were literally put into a prep school setting. All of a sudden they went from 0 to 60, took pride in themselves."
DCF, represented by assistant attorneys generals, moved to intervene to oppose Wollenberg's ruling. Romano said the message from DCF lawyers was simple, to oppose out-of state transfer to the Pennsylvania facility. "It was policy, policy, policy," he said.
Judge Wollenberg listened to the DCF arguments, but he ruled against allowing the agency to offically intervene. Katz's department was not about to get shut out of court. Or the legislature, for that matter. It proceeded with effective appeals to both of these other branches.
On Jan. 24, 2012, the Appellate Court ruled that DCF should have been entitled to formally intervene. Although one section of the relevant statute said that a judge was authorized to place a child in any institution "permitted by law to care for children," subsequent sections specified programs operated by DCF.
When Jeffrey M's lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, the DCF turned to the legislature, which amended the statute in the regular 2012 session, and then again in a December special session to reinforce the right of DCF to decide where a child will be placed and when an out-of-state facility is appropriate.