Lawmakers say that a more data-driven and “prescriptive” approach to the current epidemic of truancy, fighting and youthful misbehavior will allow the state to assess the effectiveness of diversionary programs on the local level intended to keep young people out of the criminal justice system
“Every child does not need to be referred to court if we connect with them with diversion,” State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, told CT Examiner during an interview in April. “And we all know there are some kids that, because of their home life or whatever, they’re not getting the standard support that we think a child in normal development should receive.”
Data from the state judicial branch shows that the courts sent 853 young people to Juvenile Review Boards in 2022 — more than double the number referred in each of the previous two years, and the highest number in the last five years.
Emily Morrison, director of development at United Services Inc, which runs the Youth Services Bureau for the towns of Brooklyn, Canterbury, Eastford, Killingly, Plainfield and Sterling, said the increases in referrals in the last three years has been “staggering” — rising from a pre-COVID average of 10 to 15 referrals per year to 50 referrals in the last nine months.
Lori Bergstrom, their prevention services manager, said many of their referrals were related to either fighting — both at school or in the community — or sharing sexually inappropriate images on their phones.
“They do it through Snapchat and then we’re finding that they are air-dropping them in school cafeterias,” said Bergstrom. “We’ve had more than two cases in that regard.”
Bergstrom noted that the majority of young people coming into their Youth Service Bureaus needed to be referred for mental health services, and often were subject to a waitlist. A referral for intense in-home programming could face a waitlist of four to six months.
The age of the children the Bureaus serve has also changed. Bergstrom said the children being referred to the Juvenile Review Board were shifting away from high school age and more toward seventh and eighth grade.
Truancy is also an issue. Last year, nearly 1 in 4 students in Connecticut was recorded as chronically absent, according to data from the state Department of Education.
“Post-COVID, we’re finding that youth are having a difficult time still, transitioning back into a school or a classroom,” Bergstrom said.
“It seems that most conflicts begin on social media and then come to blows when they see each other the next school day. It seems that since the pandemic, more youth demonstrate decreased ability to peacefully resolve conflict,” Tammy Trojanowski, director of community and senior services in Stratford, told CT Examiner.
Justin Carbonella, immediate past president of the Connecticut Youth Services Association and youth services director in Middletown, said the pandemic added to the complexity of cases.
“While we might be seeing similar types of offenses, we’re seeing youth who might be feeling more disconnected than prior years and with a harder path in front of them toward finding stability,” he said.
A number of bureaus told CT Examiner that the demand for mental health services has increased since the pandemic, and that the cases they are seeing are more complex.
“Typically young people, if they are struggling with something, it does come out in their behavior … whether that behavior is something that arises to the level of committing a crime or acting out somewhere in their community, or whether it’s just they’re avoiding school,” said Cochran, who also serves as director of Madison Youth Services.
A lack of data, a more “prescriptive” approach
An analysis by the research firm Dillinger Research and Applied Data completed last year recommended “a complete statewide overhaul of data collection” for the bureaus as well as improved access to needed services, more staff training, and the development of common standards and guidelines.
Walker, one of the chairs of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, introduced a bill last month to require data collection from and evaluate the performance of the Youth Service Bureaus.
Walker told CT Examiner that she felt the bureaus’ services needed to be less social engagement and more “prescriptive.” She said the legislature wanted to create a procedure that the bureaus could follow so that a child would be referred to the correct services. She added that they wanted to create a tool to assess whether or not a young person was at risk of ending up in the juvenile justice system.
“We’ve had three years of lack of socialization with children. And the level of acting out has changed and the services that need to make the impacts have to change. It’s no longer just coming and sitting and talking and hanging out with guys. It’s got to be a lot more clinical than that,” Walker said.
She said that “clinical” didn’t necessarily mean psychotherapy, but simply using practices that are “evaluated” and “controlled.”
“If we don’t do that, then we’re wasting our money,” Walker said.
But collecting and assessing the data presents its own challenges, given that the programs can vary widely depending on the size and needs of local communities.
Officials from the Department of Children and Families, the agency with oversight over the bureaus, told CT Examiner that no database currently exists to track services provided by the bureaus.
“The data collection is so basic that the [Youth Service Bureaus] are sending it in on Excel spreadsheets,” said Ken Mysogland, communications director for DCF.
DCF officials told CT Examiner that while they distribute the funds, they do not oversee the daily operations of the individual bureaus.
“A lot of the daily workings are up to the local municipalities who know the youth in their communities the best,” Mysogland said. “And so we rely on them to use the funds in the way that they think is personalized to where they are located.
Scott Cochran, president of the Connecticut Youth Services Association, offered support for a local approach at a public hearing on the matter, telling legislators that each bureau offers services reflecting the needs of families and young people in its particular region, something that can make it challenging to look at the work from a statewide perspective.
But State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, a committee member, said that without that data, there’s no way to know which programs are working and which are not.
“We need to see data that shows how far they’ve come or what they’ve accomplished or how kids are benefiting from it. Those are the things that we’re really missing,” he said.
Walker, too, emphasized the need for using data and holding the bureaus accountable for their results.
“We’re not trying to eliminate your services. We’re not trying to stop your services,” Walker said. “We’re not trying to say they didn’t work, but what we have to do is, we have to incorporate it in a way that can be evaluated. We need to quantify what you’ve been doing and establish it as a pattern.”
A plea for funding
Bureau directors told CT Examiner that the organizations have been “chronically underfunded.”
A newly established bureau receives $14,000 from the state, which the municipality is required to match. Some municipalities provide more funds, and the bureaus can receive additional funding from federal and private grants, as well as fundraising.
But according to the Dillinger analysis report, about three-quarters of the bureaus say there is “unmet need in their community” and nearly 60 percent say that they haven’t seen their yearly budget grow. The report also found that 79 of 98 bureaus surveyed — about 81 percent — said they didn’t have the resources to provide young people with more long-term services like counseling and prevention, or intervention services for young people.
In Stratford, Trojanowski said that getting an increase in funding would allow them to pay for and keep staff members, particularly people who could provide evidence-based treatment for children dealing with trauma.
She said that while they haven’t seen a substantial increase in their caseload, the work they do with individual young people requires a lot of resources.
“We spend a lot of time with the kids. They’re with us probably three to six months. It’s not in and out. We really want to get to know them, work with them and their families, develop their plans of what they need to do to fix what’s happened here and to move them forward with success. So we don’t take it lightly,” Trojanowski said.
Last year, the Youth Service Bureaus and Juvenile Review Boards received about $6.3 million from the state, according to DCF . The bureaus are currently slated to receive about $4.8 million annually, with an additional $1.7 million for the Juvenile Review Boards, according to the governor’s budget. The governor has also earmarked $2 million in federal coronavirus aid to the bureaus, which must be used by 2025.
Cochran said he’d been pushing for an additional $6 million to help the bureaus pay for increased staffing.
The legislature’s budget committee, which Walker chairs, recommended an additional $8.6 million for Juvenile Review Boards over the next two years, and $2.4 million for “Youth Services Prevention.”
Nolan said there were discussions at the state level about getting more funding to the Youth Service Bureaus, but that it couldn’t be done without having the data.
“You can’t just feed people money without having the data that shows how you’ve succeeded or how you haven’t succeeded in what you do,” he said.