Groton teen released from Connecticut juvenile facility charged with armed robbery in Rhode Island

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The last child released from the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown before the locked facility for delinquent boys closed last month was arrested within two weeks in connection with two armed robberies in Rhode Island.

The 16-year-old from Groton is being held in Rhode Island's juvenile detention center in Cranston, called the Thomas C. Slater Training School, and may be tried as an adult, according to his mother. She said her son, whom police allege wielded a gun in one of the robberies, should be held accountable if he committed the crimes, but that the State of Connecticut set up her son for failure.

"I'm sad for what happened," the mother said. "I'm angry for what happened. I just hope the State of Connecticut takes this to heart. It could have been so much worse than what it was. Somebody could have been killed because he was not in a secure facility."

The Groton teen's case is illustrative of a gap in coverage as the state Department of Children and Families relinquishes responsibility of delinquent juveniles to the state Judicial Branch. The DCF closed the training school on April 12, but the Judicial Branch doesn't take over the responsibility until July 1 and is scrambling to sign contracts for secure and unsecured facilities for delinquent teens.

The 16-year-old had been released April 12 from CJTS to Solnit North, a less secure adolescent psychiatric treatment facility in East Windsor, according to his mother. The next day, he ran away and went back to the streets. The facility notified Connecticut state police that he had left, and they issued a Silver Alert, considering him an endangered runaway. He returned home after several days, but his parents couldn't stop him from leaving the house. He had been at CJTS for eight months and was supposed to have been committed for four more months, according to the mother.

She said he grabbed her cellphone last Friday and left, saying he was just going out for an hour. She called him from another phone and repeatedly ordered him to come home. 

"He said, 'We're just driving around,'" she said. "I said, 'Just get home.'"

The mother continued calling the phone throughout the night, but her son stopped answering. She said she had no sooner tracked the phone to Rhode Island using an application than she received a call from Hopkinton police saying her son had been arrested.

In addition to the Groton boy, two other juveniles and two adults, all from Connecticut, were arrested in connection with the April 29 armed robberies of a Hopkinton convenience store and a West Warwick nail salon. The adults were identified as 29-year-old Jeffrey Wheeler of East Lyme and 18-year-old Benjamin Ibbitson of New London. The Providence Journal reported that the five people were taken into custody in Hopkinton following a car chase, and police said they found a 9mm handgun and several bags of crack cocaine in the car.

Connecticut Department of Children and Families spokesman Gary Kleeblatt issued a written statement Friday in response to questions about continued services and supervision for the children released from the juvenile training center.

"When discharging youth from CJTS, staff worked hard to find the most suitable arrangements, including services and, in some cases, out-of-home placements as appropriate among the existing resources available to the State and the Department," the statement says. "This is a transitional period as the Department transfers responsibility for these youth to the Judicial Branch, and we are all working together to find the best combination of services along with the right setting for these youth within the resources available to us all."

Some policymakers and child advocates considered CJTS an outdated facility not in keeping with the national trend to provide less restrictive community-based services for delinquent teens. The General Assembly, which voted in October 2017 to transfer oversight of juvenile delinquents to the Judicial Branch, has not yet passed a bill authorizing the Judicial Branch to implement the changes. However, the Judicial Branch has received about $17 million to fund the delinquency programs and is reviewing bids from facility operators.

Some say the money being spent on community support services for troubled juveniles is woefully inadequate. On Friday, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., led a group of 17 senators calling for at least $141.5 million in federal funding for seven juvenile justice programs that help divert kids away from prison and into community services.

"Given the significant decline in appropriations that federal juvenile justice programs have received over the past several years, we believe that it is imperative to provide as much funding as possible for the following programs," the senators wrote in a letter to colleagues in key positions to pass the funding. "These relatively modest, targeted federal investments in state and local juvenile justice programs pay significant dividends in the form of reduced juvenile crime and recidivism, better outcomes for youth, and increased public safety in communities across the country."

Recidivism is the likelihood that a convicted criminal will commit another crime.

Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, said the teen's case, about which she doesn't  know all the specifics, is an example of the state's urgent need to create the right "menu" of services for kids.

"Obviously this is a young man who needs a lot of services and support," Anderson said. "Accountability is part of it, but we want kids to come out of services different. We want there to be an impact. What could we have done differently?"

The Groton teen's mother said her son suffers from several psychiatric conditions that make him act impulsively and he thrives on the excitement of the streets. He has been involved with Connecticut's juvenile court system since 2013 for a variety of offenses, including drug violations. She thinks he needs to be held in a secured facility for juveniles where he'll receive treatment. Her son was doing well at CJTS, the mother said. Now, she said, he risks being sentenced to an adult prison for 10 or more years. 

Her son's clinician at the Rhode Island training school said he's done well there.

"And he will do very well in that kind of setting," the mother said.

The Thomas C. Slater Training School is operated by the Rhode Island Department of Children and Youth Services, which is the Ocean State's counterpart to Connecticut's DCF. Fifty-six youth were at the facility on Friday, according to Kerri White, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island DCYS. Like Connecticut, and in keeping with national trends, Rhode Island has been reforming its juvenile justice system, and the number of children in detention there has been declining. The facility houses children up to the age of 19, and has a school, vocational training programs and recreational facilities on site, White said.

Juvenile criminal cases are heard in Rhode Island's Family Court system, though, as in Connecticut, the most serious cases can be transferred to district courts where adults are tried.

"Once you're in the adult court, you're probably not going to get the treatment you need," said Senior Assistant State's Attorney Francis J. Carino, the supervisory juvenile prosecutor for Connecticut. He estimates 5 percent to 10 percent of children committing the most serious crimes and not doing well with community supervision should be in locked facilities.


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