DCF Announces Response After Sex Trafficking, Assaults, Vehicle Thefts Linked to Group Home

DCF Commissioner Designate Jodi Hill-Lilly speaks at a press conference on Thursday about the STAR group homes (CT Examiner)


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HARTFORD — In response to numerous incidents of sex trafficking, assault, stolen vehicles and disappearances at a group home in Harwinton over the course of the last three years, the Department of Children and Families announced plans on Thursday to reduce the number of adolescents in STAR group homes, to add supervisory staff to the night shift and to open two new intensive treatment centers for higher-needs teens.

A report by CT Inside Investigator published in September outlined in detail some of the incidents that took place, and found that emergency services were called to the group home 16 times just in the month of May. In the first eight months of 2023, there were 36 arrests made at the girls home. 

Jodi Hill-Lilly, Commissioner Designate for the Department of Children and Families, told reporters at a press conference on Thursday that the agency would take $6.2 million from within their current budget and put it toward improvements to the STAR system. 

STAR — Short-Term Assessment and Respite — homes are group congregate care settings for children between the ages of 11 and 18 who have been removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse. They are meant to offer behavioral health services, programming, trauma treatment and school support for a limited time period. 

Hill-Lilly said the $6.2 million is able to be diverted toward the new program because the department has had a 36 percent drop in the number of young people in congregate care settings since 2019, which has led to a 28 percent drop in costs. 

Part of the diverted funding will go toward the opening of two Intensive Transitional Treatment Centers to house young people who exhibit behaviors that are too acute for the STAR homes — one center will house eight girls, and one will house eight boys. The location of the new centers has yet to be determined, and the state will have to go out to bid for an organization to run the new centers. 

The intensive treatment centers, Hill-Lilly said, would offer more mental health services than the STAR homes had. Children would be expected to remain in the intensive treatment centers for a maximum of 30 days. 

“There’s always been therapy, those types of things in a STAR home. But it’s minimal, because it was intended to be a beginning assessment sort of a phase. The [intensive care] program will be far more clinical and a step up, if you will, in terms of treatment provision.”

In addition, Hill-Lilly said, the Albert J. Solnit Psychiatric Center in Middletown will hold six beds — three in Solnit North and three in Solnit South — for young people with particularly acute needs. 

The Harwinton group home has been shut down, and State Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Avon, told CT Examiner that the building would be sold. Seminara said she didn’t anticipate that a new STAR group home would be located in Harwinton. 

For the remaining seven STAR group homes, the number of beds available will be reduced from six per home to five beds per home, Hill-Lilly said, to improve the staff-to-patient ratio. Hill-Lilly said this would be done by attrition rather than moving adolescents currently in the homes to other facilities. 

The department anticipates the budget to hire at least one additional staffer to each of the six STAR group homes, along with all the staffing necessary for the two intensive care facilities and a new STAR home that will be opened to replace the home in Harwinton. 

Hill-Lilly said that while it was important to create the correct supervisory structure, the department was also facing a “workforce shortage” — not only in the STAR homes, but in other facilities as well. 

“The turnover rates, particularly post-pandemic, are alarming. It seems that folks are having different opinions about in-home services. So we have to support the staff that are there. And so I do believe that it’s a combination of recruiting the right staff, making sure that they’re supported and compensated accordingly, and then having the right supervisory structure in place to make sure that the program goals are met and the kids are cared for in an optimal way,” said Hill-Lilly. 

Hill-Lilly noted that the STAR homes were not locked facilities, which sometimes create challenges when trying to manage children who are prone to escape.

“We’re all facing that conundrum of kids who run, and those are the most vulnerable kids,” said Hill-Lilly. “Some of them have had some criminal involvement, some have not. Some have been in our system, have gone through the foster care system, and therapeutic care system, have been even inpatient in some of our facilities and bounced back. Our kids are struggling.” 

State Rep Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said there had been a lot of “misinformation” around the young people who were temporarily living in the STAR homes — that they were “troublemakers” or “wreaking havoc” within the communities where the homes were located. 

“That just isn’t fact. These are children who have suffered some trauma, or they have behavioral health issues. Behavioral health issues are different than behavior issues,” said Linehan.

She added that children who experienced trauma do not need to be locked up as if in prison. 

“They also need to go to school, maybe they’ll go to a job, maybe they’ll go to some treatment outside. I think we have to get away from the perception that these are kids that need to be locked up because they do not,” said Linehan. 

Seminara, whose district includes Harwinton, told reporters that she was pleased with the plan. She said she understood the community’s concerns, but that they were also understanding of the challenges that the group home was facing. 

“The community, rightfully so, does get upset. However, they are very empathetic and understanding that these are children and young adults that have been traumatized, and they recognize that it’s a very difficult situation. So I assure them that we are doing everything we can to address the situation, and I think a program like this one is really going to improve services a great deal,” said Seminara. 

Hill-Lilly said they hope to have the new intensive treatment centers operating within six months. Linehan said using funds already appropriated to DCF rather than going through “a long legislative process” meant that the changes to the system could be implemented immediately. 

In response to questions about how the legislature would oversee the rollout of the new program, Linehan responded that the committee had a “really great working relationship” with the Department of Children and Families, and that she expected to receive reports from the department regarding the roll-out of the new program. 

Hill-Lilly also pledged to be transparent and share data with the public. 

The Children’s Committee did pass a bill out of committee on Tuesday requiring the Department of Children and Families to submit a report by January 1, 2025 evaluating the efficacy of STAR group homes. Linehan said the bill could “act as a vehicle” in the future if they needed to codify any of the actions that DCF plans to take into law, but that right now there was no need to enact legislation. 

She noted that if the department wanted to get money for the programs going forward, they would have to convince the legislature’s budget committee that what they were doing was generating results. 

Gov. Ned Lamont also spoke at the conference, highlighting investments that the state had made at different levels of the mental health system, including mental health counselors at schools and the urgent crisis centers for young people as an alternative to the emergency room. 

“So we have a continuum from a Big Brother Big Sister at school, right through a STAR program, right through the pediatric psychiatric. And doing everything we can to give these kids the very best start in life and make sure they know that we love them,” said Lamont. 

But Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, who also worked with Hill-Lilly on the plan for the STAR program, said that much more needed to be done to shore up the children’s mental health system at all levels. 

At a public hearing in October about the group home, Eagan said that the STAR homes were “not designed or resourced” to provide treatment to teens who had experienced abuse or had a history of mental health problems. 

Eagan told CT Examiner in an email on Thursday that she supported making investments into STAR homes, but said that the children’s mental health system as a whole needed much more. 

“It is important to emphasize concurrently that the behavioral health system for children remains on the verge of collapse as outpatient services and home-based services remain historically strained,” Eagan wrote. “It is essential that investments be made by the State across the continuum of care for children. With children still crowding local emergency departments and waiting lists for essential services, much more work remains. We look forward to continued partnership with stakeholders, including DCF, DSS, and the legislature, to address this ongoing crisis.” 

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.