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CT’s youth mental health system needs work. But where does the state start?

Connecticut's Department of Children and Families Commissioner Jodi Hill-Lilly announces policy changes about STAR group homes on Thursday, March 14. State lawmakers stand alongside her as she makes her announcement in Hartford.
Ginny Monk
CT Mirror
Connecticut's Department of Children and Families Commissioner Jodi Hill-Lilly announces policy changes about STAR group homes on Thursday, March 14. State lawmakers stand alongside her as she makes her announcement in Hartford.

Some Connecticut parents are concerned about the state’s youth mental health care system. Experts point to a workforce shortage. What is the state doing to fix it?

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jaden Edison to discuss his article written with Ginny Monk, “For some CT kids, the mental health care system is struggling,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Jaden. During the legislative session that just ended in Connecticut, lawmakers on the children's committee held a hearing into the closure of a short-term state group home for kids in Harwinton run by Bridge Family Center. Is that what prompted you and your colleague Ginny Monk to look into Connecticut's mental health system for kids?

JE: It was certainly part of it. I think even prior to the hearing, hearing a little bit about kind of the struggles of the mental health care system for Connecticut's most vulnerable populations, which includes children, and hearing about the issues at the Harwinton facility, one of the state’s Short Term Assessment and Respite (STAR) homes, operated by Bridge, that was one part of it. And then I think, you know, the hearing, which was a forum to really get to the root or for lawmakers to really collect information on what they can do and what actually happened at Harwinton, hearing from DCF officials and really just trying to get a pulse on the situation itself, to serve in a way as a precursor to the legislative session.

Questions like if there are any policy changes we need to make, what are the things that we need to do? So that was an informational gathering that, in a lot of ways, served a string for us, you know, along the journey to figure it out. What is the story here? And I think, for us, it was really zooming out. Not just looking at Harwinton itself, specifically, but the system at large, because you can point to a number of issues that happen, you know, at the Harwinton STAR facility as it pertains to children there who reports of sex trafficking and you know, runaways and really wrongdoing by staff. There were so many alarming accusations and things that led eventually to the closure of the Harwinton facility.

For us, it was really to zoom out and look at the system. I think what you find is, you know, the STAR homes in and of itself, which are meant to be the short-term stays for kids who don't necessarily require something as serious as, let's say, maybe hospitalization, but also need a little bit more of therapeutic services than what the STAR homes provide. And so it's this kind of middle ground, right to a waiting period, if you will, till we're able to find you the appropriate space that perhaps you need to be in, but what you're finding is that the system is so strained via workforce shortages via just the lack of infrastructure to figure out how we can best help these kids to where they're staying at these facilities much longer than, you know, than anticipated. And they're running into, you know, issues, a lot of which will outline the situation in Harwinton.

WSHU: One particular parent gave some testimony. She was from Simsbury. Could you just tell us a little bit about her story and how it illustrates the problems that we have in the system?

JE: Absolutely. So, I think that may help people to listen to this better kind of understanding of the situation. You have this mother who has tried everything possible for her child: psychiatric hospitalizations, different forms of therapy, emergency room visits, all these things. She’s taken all the precautionary steps to how to best help her child. It gets to a point where it becomes so dire that her child begins to report kind of suicidal ideations and so on and so forth. Very alarming and scary and serious things right for any parent, any child to kind of experience and so, you know, feeling like they have no other avenue.

The child goes into DCF care, and DCF places the child into one of the STAR homes, the Harwinton STAR home in particular. And as we just talked about, kind of all of the issues, there were reports of trafficking, abuse, and all of these serious, very, very serious things that are occurring there. Instead of being perhaps a solution to the problems, right, that were outlined earlier, or excuse me a solution or a positive next step, you know, in addition to the hospitalizations and the therapy, and ER visits, it becomes another one of those things that eventually worsens the problem for this family.

And for their child to get to a point now where they're still trying to figure out what the best solution is, what do we get to help, right, but they're in the middle of this very system that by many accounts, right, from advocates, and people who work within it is crumbling, if not already broken. And so I think that that particular anecdote maybe speaks to just how serious the situation is right. And, you know, I would also add the Simsbury mom. She wanted to testify at that hearing that occurred, you know, previously, but didn't get the opportunity to, but her story is very much outlined. And again, it's an example of a lot of the struggles of this, the system that is tasked with helping, again, our most vulnerable children.

WSHU: I understand from your story that the state has a new home that they've put out a bid for. Would that solve the problem? Do we need many more homes? What are the experts' views on this?

JE: That's a great question. I think there are a few things because the changes that were proposed, as we just highlighted. The STAR homes as they currently exist, do not function to have the sort of therapeutic services that the children need in many ways, and they have experienced trauma at such a young age. And we're talking about children from the ages of, let's say, 12 to 18 years old, right, like children who have experienced such traumatic kinds of circumstances at such a young age, the homes as they currently exist, do not serve their needs. So the changes of even adding another even changing the acronym of STAR, to add another T [STTAR] to now provide more therapeutic services, if you will.

And so I don't know that people feel perhaps that the changes that were proposed, or putting out another bid to create another STAR home solves the issue entirely itself, as much as it is to say, like, we recognize the things that happened at the Harwinton facility, and we need to take some kind of action. So here's what we're doing in the intermediate, but more largely, there needs to be a coming together of all stakeholders.

Because this isn't necessarily a story just about the bridge and about the STAR home model, right? This isn't just about blaming the children, who are experiencing what they experience, by many accounts, a system that has, in many ways failed them. So I don't know that the change itself or putting out another bid to add more services to the STAR homes, or adding another STAR home or, you know, whatever it may be is to necessarily solve the issue. But it is, I think, a recognition that things need to change. And we're gonna have to come together and figure it out. Because especially in the area that I cover, justice, you have a plethora of people who don't believe that a punitive response to the children is appropriate or are responding in a way that doesn't necessarily help or serve this very vulnerable population in need. So there's a need. And I think there's a desire by some people, especially the advocates, to come to the table and figure out, well, what do we need to do? And then there is an accountability piece to understanding that somewhere along the way, we've gone wrong, we went wrong, we took a misstep, or we didn't do something that we needed to do. So taking accountability for that, and coming together and figuring out how to move forward.

WSHU: Now, you also found that children of color are largely represented in this population of children under DCF care. And in the system. There's an organization called the Child Health Development Institute, and they came up with a report. What does that report say?

JE: A lot of it was basically finding that when you talk about intensive kind of outpatient treatment, outpacing the state's capacity to provide certain services and what the report highlighted itself was, and I think we talked about this a little bit was, you know, staffing shortages. And that's particularly in I would say, intermediate levels or care which the STAR home model would maybe fall under that definition, because it doesn't necessarily require hospitalization. But it's also obviously a need for more than just the status quo for lack of a better term. So I think the report itself highlighted a lot of the staffing shortages in the state's capacity or lack thereof, to really address the issues.

And so I think the report is really centered at that and again, just serves as another kind of, you know, example or another or proof, if you will, backing it up with some kind of research and really looking into the issue. In finding that, again, you know, when it comes to the state's infrastructure to be able to help these children, aside from, you know, the particular problems that were highlighted at a facility like Harwinton, the very serious things of trafficking, and abuse, and so on and so forth. Staffing shortages, infrastructure and availability, riots of space, and so on and so forth, are just as big issues that are plaguing the system and are just as much in need of addressing to address the system more broadly.

WSHU: So, talking about addressing the problems and the legislative proposals, I know that money has a lot to do with this, and the legislature did not appropriate any new funds this year. So is this teeing it up for next year? And are lawmakers talking about putting more money into the system?

JE: Yeah, I think I think it remains to be seen in terms of kind of where it goes. A couple of things I'll highlight, in addition to the recognition that okay, even at the STAR home level, we're going to make some changes, we need to provide at least more kinds of therapeutic services.

WSHU: That means more staff, which means more money.

JE: Right, exactly. I think, you know, you've raised a valid point there. You know, the other thing I was gonna highlight was the passage of the juvenile justice policy and oversight committee legislation, which, in a lot of ways, if I can explain it in simple terms, is basically let's create another task force to study the continuum of care, which would include, obviously, the kind of care provided at the STAR homes, particularly for young girls. But to your point, I think you're 100% right, like, this is going to take more addressing in the future legislative session, particularly because everything that we're talking about, all the changes that need to be made from staffing to infrastructure to whatever it is all cost money.

So the state is going to have to put forth the funds and the resources to be able to carry out those things. So I don't obviously, this year, given the state's budgetary restraints and the things that weren't able to get done, I think there was a there, I think there is a recognition that what happened in Harwinton was representative of a much larger problem with the system. And there's going to need to be, you know, a coming to the table of all the stakeholders now, you even heard that from some of the local law enforcement in places like West Hartford, and Wolcott, which operate STAR homes, is talking about the need for everybody to come to the table, everybody to put their heads together and everybody to get to the start of the problem, right at the root of the problem. Because we know the problem exists.

But to your point, obviously, that also means funding, right? Because you're talking about increasing staffing and resources, you gotta put the money, you know, where your mouth is, for lack of a better term. And so I do think that it'll be something that's on lawmakers mind, but also understanding that we have an election coming up, and I add that caveat, because that just complicates it, because you don't know who's going to be in what position next legislative session, so on and so forth. But I do think, though, that you know, there was a consensus among lawmakers this year that there's a problem, and we need to address it as to what further adjustments they're going to make. I think that remains to be seen. But I also think this is a priority for DCF as well.

WSHU: DCF has a new commissioner.

JE: Yes. Right. Correct. So it's not just the legislation. There are things that DCF is also working on and things that need to be addressed.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.