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New Haven - An unusual decision to put a transgender girl at a Connecticut women's prison is sparking a heated debate over how to handle a teenager called dangerous by the state but portrayed as vulnerable by her attorney.
A judge sent the 16-year-old girl, identified as Jane Doe in court papers, to York Correctional Institution in Niantic this month at the request of the Department of Children and Families. Authorities say state law allows judges to transfer custody of juvenile delinquents from the DCF to the Correction Department when they are deemed dangerous and cannot otherwise be safely held.
Aaron Romano, the girl's attorney, said putting her in an adult prison violated her rights and federal law; he wants her placed with a foster family and receiving treatment. He said she's been kept in a cell 22 to 23 hours per day in a wing for mentally ill inmates.
"There are prisoners who are screaming and banging and yelling all hours of the day, all hours of the night," Romano said. "That is not the way that the Constitution says that we treat our juvenile delinquent."
The case marks the first time a transgender juvenile has been transferred to the Connecticut Department of Correction, according to Romano and a Correction spokesman. It's the second time in Connecticut that a judge has granted DCF permission to transfer custody to the Correction Department, Romano said.
The girl was born male but identifies as female and has undergone hormone treatment, her attorney said.
Romano expressed concerns that she could be transferred to a men's prison. He said the judge ordered her sent to York and assessed by prison officials, who have said at this point there are no plans to transfer her.
DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said that although the law suggests that anatomy determines the placement, DCF worked intensively with prison officials to have her placed at the women's prison.
"I asked the Juvenile Court to transfer the youth to the adult system with great reluctance and sadness," Katz wrote in an op-ed in The Hartford Courant. "It was the only acceptable option to ensure the safety of other youths for whom I am responsible. She has repeatedly, and over an extended period, assaulted girls and female staff members."
The latest physical assault left a staffer with a concussion, eye injury, bites and bruises, Katz said.
The girl said in a statement released by her attorney that a prison guard watches her take a shower or use the bathroom. She said she's been moved away from where women were constantly screaming and crying.
"I keep telling myself that this is just a nightmare but it doesn't end," she wrote. "I know that I need to work on my issues and I want to work on my issues but this is not the place for that to happen. I am afraid of the women here and I don't want to be around them. They yell comments to me and make fun of me when they see me."
The girl says in court papers she was placed in DCF custody at age 5 because her father was in prison and her mother was using drugs. She said she was raped by her cousin at 8, beaten by her uncle from 8 to 12 and placed by DCF in a residential facility, where a worker sexually abused her.
She said she was raped at another facility by a boy and repeatedly sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend. She smoked crack and engaged in prostitution for a time. Now, she says, she's now sober but sometimes suicidal.
"I need to be given treatment and services specific to my needs," she wrote. "I need to deal with the trauma I've experienced in my life. This prison cannot do that for me."
Attorneys for the state say she was committed to DCF for 18 months for a delinquency conviction last year. The details of that weren't disclosed.
They say a treatment plan is being developed and no evidence has been offered to challenge the prison placement. They deny she's isolated, saying instead that she was placed in a single cell in the mental health unit, given books and puzzles.
Romano and other advocates say juveniles are more likely to be physically or sexually abused or commit suicide in adult prisons. They also say a juvenile adjudication is not the same as a criminal conviction.
"Essentially this young person didn't get the benefit of the protections of a criminal proceeding but got in effect the result of it," said Chase Strangio, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.