Mystic's High Street House closes

Mystic - Cost reductions and the state Department of Children and Families' move away from group settings for care of youth has led to the closing of a Mystic group home hosting troubled teenage girls.

The High Street House program, run by Noank Group Home and Support Services, officially ended its long-running program for teenage girls in state custody on April 1. Eleven employees of the nonprofit lost their jobs as a result of DCF's $1 million cut in funding. The one remaining client in the six-bed home was moved to another facility, said Noank Group Home Executive Director Sandy Easton.

Four former employees have found other jobs, she said, including one who is working at one of the two other homes run by the Noank Group Homes.

DCF's Juvenile Services Division had referred teenage girls, ages 14 to 18, to the High Street House program from more secure facilities for specialized services that helped with the transition back to their families and communities, Easton said.

She said similar facilities are closing across the state, a reflection of the shift in philosophy at DCF where more youth are being placed in foster homes, kinship care and returned to their families.

"It hurts to lose a home, but one of the reasons for it is we're dependent on referrals from DCF. DCF was making very few, and in some cases, no referrals to the High Street House. We couldn't keep up the population because of that," Easton said.

Since 2011, DCF has worked to reduce the number of children in group settings, favoring instead placement of the children in family settings, said DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt. Under Commissioner Joette Katz, there has been major drop in number of children in congregate care - from 1,428 in 2011 to 941 last month.

"We've been able to successfully move children into family settings," Kleeblatt said. "We do that because children are better off with families overall. We no longer require as many congregate care settings as we did in the past. It really reflects a healthy balancing of the system for caring for children."

A secondary impact is DCF has been able to spend less money than it had in the past.

"But that's not what's driving this. What's driving this is what's best for kids," Kleeblatt said.

A new focus

The High Street House was one of three therapeutic group homes for teenage girls run by Noank Group Homes. Programs at the two remaining homes remain funded independently of each other, each with annual budgets of about $939,000, Easton said. DCF's Behavioral Health Services Division refers youth to Main Street House in Noank and Gray Farm House in Ledyard.

Each of the programs is staffed around the clock to provide treatment services and include positions of program director, a registered nurse, psychiatrist, clinicians, residential supervisors and youth coaches. Along with clinical therapy, Easton said the girls are being mentored and taught life and relational skills.

Noank Group Homes also runs the Community Housing Assistance Program for men and women ages 18 and older who have been in DCF care.

Easton, who retires in June due to health reasons, said the closing represents an opportunity to shift focus and seek funds for a new, yet-to-be-determined service. Easton, who has been in human services for 40 years and executive director at Noank Group Homes for the past five, said her first job in the field was with High Street House as a program director.

"When the first place you ever worked closes, there is a sadness that's hard to explain," Easton said. "But we will survive."

Board President Kelly Reardon said it was a difficult and challenging but also exciting time for the 40-year-old agency.

"We have the building and infrastructure to support something new," Reardon said. "We're looking at our options to implement something in that space. Times are tough, so we don't anticipate the state will fund anything."

Instead, Reardon said the agency will look to private sources and grants for funding.

Reardon said the search continues for an executive director and envisions "someone with a new vision that can lead us in a new direction while staying true to our mission."

Reardon said the many ideas have been considered, including the idea of servicing homeless teenage gay and lesbian youth, a segment of the population for which no group homes or facilities currently exist within the state.

"We're exploring all of our options," Reardon said. "We don't intend to let the home sit vacant."

g.smith@theday.com

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