HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut’s top child welfare official is again trying to establish a residential center for troubled girls, a decade after the state shut a facility and four years after political pressure killed a proposed girls’ detention center in Bridgeport.
Commissioner Joette Katz said Tuesday the Department of Children and Families plans to spend up to $3.5 million to convert a building on the grounds of a former psychiatric center in Middletown next year. The 10- to 12-bed facility would provide residential treatment for girls between the ages of 13 and 18 for up to six months.
Girls are now in detention centers for legal run-ins such as fights or shoplifting or are in private residential programs. Many have been sexually abused and some are living out of state, away from families.
The idea for a new center has been around for six months, Katz said, as officials looked to fill a gap created by the state shutdown of the Long Lane center in 2003 following an inmate’s suicide and problems cited by state officials.
In addition, judges have “complained bitterly” about a lack of locked facilities, Katz said.
The commissioner, drawing a comparison with the failed attempt in 2009 to build a facility in Bridgeport, said her proposal is a limited use of available buildings.
A state lawmaker from Bridgeport referred to the 2009 proposal as a jail and public opposition in the community focused on its size and a proposed 6-foot-high fence in a residential neighborhood.
Katz said her plan will avoid the problems that tripped up state officials.
“It’s a small facility,” she said. “This is not about building some behemoth hospital or detention center.”
Katz’s proposal helps correct an imbalance between treatment she said is available for nine times as many troubled boys in Connecticut than for girls, said Sen. Danté Bartolomeo, Senate chairwoman of the legislature’s Children’s Committee.
“We have a need for a unit like this,” she said.
However, Sen. Paul Doyle, whose district includes much of Middletown, said he’s waiting for more details before committing to the plan.
Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, an advocacy group, said state juvenile officials are doing a good job with limited money. But the state needs to do more to help youngsters before they are dispatched to state facilities, she said.
“The feeling is we have to lock these children up to force them to get treatment,” she said.
Katz, whose plan for the center includes music, dance and art lessons for the girls, said that because many of the girls suffer abuse, they often walk away from unlocked treatment centers.
“I don’t view this facility as a prison,” she said.