When States Can't Control Violent Youth, Is Prison The Answer?

May 15, 2014
Originally published on May 15, 2014 8:18 pm

More than 4,000 children are in the custody of Connecticut's Department of Children and Families. But it's one girl, known as Jane Doe, who has galvanized advocates for juvenile justice reform and LGBT youth.

Last month, a Connecticut judge approved a rare request from the state's child welfare agency: to move the 16-year-old transgender girl to an adult women's prison. She has not been charged with any crimes, but the state says she's too violent for a juvenile facility. Advocacy groups nationwide have criticized the move, saying prison is not the right place for a teen with a history of trauma.

Joette Katz, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, has been the target of recent protests but is standing by her decision to move Jane Doe into the adult facility.

"She engaged in some of her typical — I hate to say typical — but some behaviors. Assaulting youth, grabbing hair, punching," Katz says. "But the one that really was the final straw, frankly, was the one that occurred at the end of January."

That's when Jane Doe fought and injured a staff member at a Massachusetts facility for girls. The staff member didn't press charges, but the program sent Jane Doe back to Connecticut. Katz says it was just one of more than a dozen assaults on staff and youth by the teen, and that it proves she's too dangerous for any DCF facility.

The girl has a long history of being sexually and physically abused. She has been in multiple residential programs since she was 9, and some of the abuse allegedly happened while she was in DCF care. Experts say this kind of trauma can make children violent.

"The kind of abuse that she was apparently subjected to, or even witnessed, has a significant impact on the way these youth respond," says John Tuell, executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice.

Tuell says there are many children like Jane Doe who've been abused, removed from their homes and then act out. But that doesn't mean that states should send a complicated child to prison, he says.

"This step that was taken by Connecticut puts this youth at higher risk for continued failure," Tuell says. "It would not be hard to argue that this was simply another factor that contributed to that downward spiral."

Tuell says Connecticut's move is surprising because the state is considered a leader in juvenile justice reform. Over the past two decades, the state has reduced the number of youth in its prisons.

Jane Doe's supporters believe her gender identity caused the state to treat her differently, but DCF has long recognized her as a female and had placed her in several programs for girls before it asked a court to transfer her to prison.

Connecticut's Child Advocate Sarah Eagan has been part of the negotiations between DCF and the teen's attorneys to find a more appropriate place for the girl. Eagan says states have to do more to reach all troubled kids, transgender or not.

"These children, whether they are delinquent, whether they are abused or neglected, whether they are both, need to be connected to families and their community above all else," Eagan says. "We struggle — not just Connecticut, others struggle as well — with, how do we do that for kids that exhibit very complicated behavior?"

LGBT advocates say it can be especially tough to find a nurturing home for transgender youth, who often are discriminated against by their own relatives. They point to a lack of foster families and other residential programs that will accept them.

Jane Doe has written letters to the DCF commissioner and to Connecticut's governor asking to be let out of prison. Since then, she's been moved from the mental health unit to a small apartment on prison grounds. Her attorney says she's still isolated, and corrections officers watch her around the clock.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Last month, a Connecticut judge approved a rare request from the state's child welfare agency to move a 16-year-old transgender girl to an adult women's prison. She hasn't been charged with any crimes but the state says she's too violent for a juvenile facility. Advocacy groups nationwide have criticized Connecticut. They say prison is not the right place for a teen with a history of trauma. From member station WNPR, Lucy Nalpathanchil reports

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL, BYLINE: More than 4,000 children are in the custody of Connecticut's department of children and families but it's one girl known as Jane Doe who has galvanized advocates for juvenile justice reform and LGBT youth. Katz is DCF commissioner Joette Katz. She's standing by her decision to move Jane Doe into a prison.

JOETTE KATZ: She engaged in some of her typical - I hate to say typical, but some behaviors. Assaulting youth, grabbing hair, punching. But the one that was really the final straw, frankly, was the one that occurred at the end of January.

NALPATHANCHIL: That's when Jane Doe fought and injured a staff member at a Massachusetts facility for girls. The victim didn't press charges but the program sent Jane Doe back to Connecticut. Commissioner Katz said it's just one of more than a dozen assaults on staff and youth by the teen and proves she's too dangerous for any DCF facility.

Since she was nine years old, Jane Doe has been in multiple residential programs and has a long history of being sexually and physically abused. Some of the abuse happened while she was in DCF care. Experts say this trauma can make children violent.

JOHN TUELL: The kind of abuse that she was apparently subjected or even witnessed has a significant impact on the way these youth respond.

NALPATHANCHIL: John Tuell is executive director of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice. He says there are many children like Jane Doe who've been abused, removed from their homes and then act out. But Tuell says it doesn't mean states should send a complicated child to prison.

TUELL: This step that was taken by Connecticut puts this youth at higher risk for continued failure. It would not be hard to argue this was simply another factor that contributed to that downward spiral.

NALPATHANCHIL: Tuell say Connecticut's actions are surprising because the state is considered a leader in juvenile justice reform.

Jane Doe's supporters believe her gender identity caused the state to treat her differently. But DCF has long recognized her as a female and had placed her in several programs for girls before it asked a court to transfer her to prison.

Connecticut's advocate for children, Sarah Eagan, has been part of the negotiations between DCF and the teen's attorneys to find a more appropriate place for the girl. Eagan says states have to do more to reach all troubled kids, transgender or not.

SARAH EAGAN: These children - whether they are delinquent, whether they are abused or neglected, whether they are both - need to be connected to families and their community above else. And we struggle, not just Connecticut, others struggle as well, with how do we do that for kids that exhibit very complicated behavior?

NALPATHANCHIL: LGBT advocates say it can be especially tough to find a nurturing home for transgender youth who often are discriminated against by their own relatives. And they point to a lack of foster families and other residential programs that will accept them.

Jane Doe has written letters to the DCF commissioner and to Connecticut's governor asking to be let out of prison. Since then, she's been moved from the mental health unit to a small apartment on prison grounds. Her attorney says she's still isolated and corrections officers watch her around the clock.

For NPR News, I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil in Hartford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.