HARTFORD — Reports of sex trafficking, assaults, stolen vehicles and disappearances at a Harwinton temporary housing facility for teenage girls brought legislators and local leaders to Hartford on Wednesday, questioning the Department of Children and Families about how such incidents were allowed to occur.
“I am not here to place blame on any one organization, “ Harwinton First Selectman Michael Criss wrote in testimony to the legislature’s Committee on Children. “However, I am here to help legislators and all involved to revamp a very broken system that needs a complete overhaul and accountability. We clearly are not doing enough to assist our troubled youth in creating a better life and making available the resources needed to break the horrific life cycle they have been exposed to.”
A report published last month by CT Inside Investigator revealed that police responded to the Short Term Assessment and Respite home in Harwinton 16 times in May. The home, which is designed to temporarily house girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who are in need of shelter, is run by The Bridge Family Center, a nonprofit that contracts with DCF.
A three-year timeline presented by DCF on Wednesday showed three reported allegations of sexual contact between an employee at the home and a young person who was residing there, the first in early 2021. It also showed an allegation of a Bridge employee physically assaulting one of the teens, two instances of young people engaging in “alleged sexual contact” with one another, and another incident where one of the teens assaulted another.
The home, which is not a locked facility, is also facing a lawsuit by a parent who alleged her 14-year-old daughter was physically assaulted while at the shelter, according to CT Inside Investigator.
Kevin Ferrarotti, chief of service for the Harwinton Ambulance Association, wrote in testimony to legislators that the number of calls the group responded to at the STAR home more than quadrupled between 2021 and 2022. The change coincided with a shift in the facility’s status as a “group home” to a “juvenile shelter,” he claimed.
Ferrarotti alleged that members of the ambulance association saw “textbook” child abuse and neglect at the facility.
But the facility’s Executive Director Margaret Hann said the home took immediate steps to address the incidents.
“We have never denied that the incidents which have occurred at the Harwinton STAR program recently are serious in nature. As executive director, my priority was to address these issues immediately, which we did,” she said, adding that employees involved in these incidents were either suspended or terminated, that DCF was notified of the incidents and that the teenagers received counseling from the home’s clinicians.
At the Wednesday hearing, DCF Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes noted that the number of incidents listed in the timeline — with the exception of the abuse and neglect instances — were fairly typical of STAR homes, due to the teenagers’ level of need. Smaller communities like Harwinton tend to feel more strain because they have fewer emergency medical personnel available to respond, Dorantes explained.
In response, State Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Avon, asked whether the incidents that happened in 2021 and early 2022 had led the department to reconsider renewing its contract with the Bridge Family Center.
“We had a number of instances here of sexual nature, both between resident and resident and staff and resident, and … the staff were removed … but it seems like they were removed and then new staff came in, and this still occurred,” Seminara said. “I guess it questions how I feel — and it should question how anybody would feel — the confidence in this STAR home … in providing care because there’s a consistent problem that happened.”
Dorantes said every incident was investigated, and that the organization had taken corrective actions, such as removing the staff members involved. She also said the recent spike in incidents wasn’t surprising, given the upheaval that teens experienced during the pandemic.
State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, asked if it would be possible to improve the background check policy for prospective employees at the facility.
Hann responded that the Bridge had “restructured” its program, including firing several employees, and contracted with an organization for “intensive on-site observation and training” regarding how to manage the teens’ behavior. As of May 31, the Bridge has not accepted new clients and has implemented a corrective action plan, according to Hann.
‘Nowhere else for them to be’
Megan Pilcher’s daughter was placed in the Harwinton STAR home after years of failed attempts to get the mental health treatment she needed.
In testimony submitted to the legislators, Pilcher said her daughter struggled with mental health issues stemming from early childhood trauma, and went through numerous treatments, including a stint at a psychiatric residential treatment facility.
“She was running away, self-harming, attempting suicide and putting our other children at risk. Her actions were terrifying,” Pilcher wrote.
Eventually, Pilcher said her daughter went to the Institute of Living in Hartford. When they moved to discharge her, Pilcher refused to pick her up, saying they were putting her life at risk. The institute then called DCF, who placed the child in the STAR home where, Pilcher said, she was given “zero clinical treatment.”
“Properly run group homes play an important role; however they do not replace medical treatment. My daughter needed medical treatment,” Pilcher wrote.
A report from child advocate Sarah Egan shared during the hearing noted that STAR homes were “not designed or resourced” to provide the treatment that teenagers needed, many of whom arrive with a history of child abuse, suicidal ideation or self-harm, and sexual abuse. Some teens have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, mood disorders or severe developmental trauma, the report showed. Multiple girls were also brought directly from the hospital to the STAR home.
“Individuals working directly with girls in these and other programs frequently describe them to [the Office of the Child Advocate] as ‘without hope,’” Egan wrote in her testimony to legislators.
Egan and other legislators identified the incidents at the Harwinton STAR home as a symptom of a larger problem with the children’s mental health system.
Egan explained there are shortages at every level of mental health care. In mid-September, she said, 33 children who ended up in a hospital emergency room were assessed as needing in-patient psychiatric care, but only six beds were available. Average wait times at a short-term psychiatric residential facility were over three months, intensive in-home services had a waitlist of between 400 and 500 families, and services in out-patient clinics had waitlists driven by a lack of staff.
In her testimony, Hann also noted that cost-of-living adjustments have not kept up with inflation, meaning nonprofits were struggling to hire and retain staff. This has resulted in fewer congregate care settings for children with mental health needs, she said. Egan said staff were paid close to minimum wage.
State Rep. Mary Welander, D-Orange, said they needed to address the lack of mental health services.
“These are serious traumatic experiences that these kids are facing. And the staffing information sheet [for the Harwinton STAR home] brought up some concerns. The psychiatrist is only available two hours per week. The nurse, only eight hours per week. One clinician who is trained in dealing with some of the mental-behavioral crises,” Welander said.
State Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly, worried that staffing levels didn’t change depending on the level of need of the children in the home, and that DCF may not be aware of the child’s level of need when they first arrive.
“It seems to me that many of the children that are there shouldn’t be there. Their need is much higher than the level of care that you’re able to provide in these homes, and it seems a little dangerous that you would be placing individuals into these homes when you don’t know their level of care need,” Dauphinais said.
Egan also noted children were supposed to stay in STAR homes no longer than 60 days, but that half of the children in STAR homes across the state had been there more than 100 days.
“Children are not matched to STAR homes,” she said. “They are placed in STAR homes because there is nowhere else for them to be.”
Dorantes reiterated that STAR homes were not meant to be mental health treatment facilities — but unlike mental health facilities or outpatient programs, they are unable to turn children away.
“The STAR is also the level of care that has no eject or no reject policies. So they are often the type of setting that can accept kids when other levels can deny,” she said.