Training school closure leaves Groton juvenile without suitable placement

And then there was Zachary S.

The last teen to be released from the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown, before the locked facility for delinquent boys closed for good Thursday, was a 16-year-old from Groton who has been involved with the juvenile court system since 2013 for a variety of offenses, including drug violations.

Within a day of being transferred to a less secure facility, he ran away and went back to the streets.

On July 1, the Judicial Branch is taking over the cases of approximately 175 juveniles committed to state custody, and is reviewing bids for locked and unlocked facilities throughout the state. But for now, Connecticut doesn't appear to have a suitable placement for children like Zachary.

The teen, who is not being identified fully because of his age, had become increasingly anxious as, one by one, the other boys were released to their parents or less restrictive treatment settings, according to his mother, Marjorie. She said her son suffers from a number of conditions, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, reactive attachment disorder and extreme anxiety. When he gets anxious, he gets impulsive and acts out, she said.

"He kept calling me," the mother said. "He was like, 'Mom, have you heard anything? What are they going to do with me?'"  

The state attempted to place Zachary at a Pennsylvania boys facility called George Jr. Republic, but the family learned on April 9 that he wasn't accepted, his mother said. By then, only Zachary and one other boy remained in the $57 million facility that had room for more than 200 boys. 

The other boy left on Tuesday, April 10, according to Marjorie.

On Thursday, April 12, Zachary was taken to Solnit North, a less secure adolescent psychiatric treatment facility in East Windsor. He paced nervously during the intake process, but his mother said he seemed to settle down after being assigned a counselor and taken to the cottage where he would be housed.

The next night, he walked out of Solnit North after telling staff, "I can't stay here," his mother said.

He remained at large for almost a week while his parents worried for his safety to the point of discussing funeral arrangements.

'Living on the edge'

The juvenile training school in Middletown has been criticized by child advocates as an outdated, prison-like facility that was not in keeping with current practices of treating delinquent children in less restrictive settings. But Zachary's mother said that during his current one-year commitment, he had developed a good rapport with a counselor at the training school and seemed to be doing well. She has a background in early childhood education focusing on special education and said the teachers and other staff knew how to handle the "really, really tough boys" like her son.

"There is that group of juveniles, both boys and girls, that need secure facilities in order to stay safe," his mother said. "The minute he gets on the street, he, for whatever reason, goes back to this life. I think it's excitement. I think it's living on the edge. It's inconceivable to me that they closed the only facility in the State of Connecticut that could keep my son and others like him safe from themselves and others until he can get whatever treatment he needs to heal whatever is going on in his brain."

Gary Kleeblatt, spokesman for the Department of Children and Families, said he could not discuss Zachary's case specifically, but issued a general statement about runaways and the transition of juvenile delinquent cases from DCF to the Judicial Branch.

"When a DCF-involved youth leaves a treatment program, we do everything possible to quickly locate the youth and return him or her to an appropriate and safe setting," the statement said. "We notify police and often request that they issue a Silver Alert. We also maintain contact with the youth's family and others who may help locate the youth. As youths previously committed by the courts to DCF are transferred into the care of the Judicial Branch, the Department remains committed to working with all of our residential and community partners to address concerns and ensure the safety and care of all involved."

State police issued a Silver Alert for Zachary, but his parents feared the alert would only serve to notify the people who had threatened him with a gun, during a drug deal gone bad in December 2017, that he was back on the street.

Marjorie said she and her husband, Gary, a retired Navy sailor, discussed the possibility Zachary would be found dead.

"I'm not saying that to be dramatic," she said by phone on Thursday. "I said to my husband, 'Do we even have life insurance so we can bury him?' We talked about cremating him, doing something private. I said, 'I think we need a viewing.'"

Later Thursday, Zachary called home and told his mother he had seen the person with whom he had a disagreement and the person told him, "We're good."

"He said, 'Mom, I just want to come home now that I'm safe,'" she said.

He spent the night at home Thursday, but left again the next day.

His future placement also remained uncertain.

'Kids are dollar signs'

Marjorie, who has called DCF and police in the past when her son became unmanageable, said she doesn't know if she trusts the state any longer. The child welfare agency at one point told her they could help Zachary if the parents turned him over to DCF custody and he was placed in foster care. She found the idea absurd, and thought maybe the state was trying to get more federal money by using her son to increase the number of children in its care.

"These kids are dollar signs for them," she said.

Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane and others in the Division of Criminal Justice have said teens who commit serious crimes have been emboldened by the changes in the law that give them more protection and fewer repercussions.

Of the 37 delinquent teens who have been released from CJTS since January to their homes or less restrictive community settings, at least two have been rearrested for stealing cars, according to Senior Assistant State's Attorney Francis J. Carino, the supervisory juvenile prosecutor for the state.

Carino said about 5 percent to 10 percent of children committing the most serious crimes should be in locked facilities and that the CJTS, which was accredited by several organizations and had retrained staff after being criticized for improperly isolating and restraining children, should have remained open.

Based on past incidents, the state should have known her son is "a runner," Marjorie said. In the December 2017 incident, Zachary escaped from a dentist's office in Groton even though he was supervised by a guard from CJTS, she said. He arranged to use a girl's car, though he has never had a driver's license. He crashed the car early the next morning in New London, where he told police he had been chased by people with a gun. He evaded the scene of the accident, and when he was caught a short time later, had a bag of cocaine in his possession, according to his mother.

She said that despite his problems, her son, whom she and her husband adopted from Korea when he was 9 months old, is loving and bright and has potential. She thinks a good outcome still is possible.

"He would love to become a boat captain and have his own fishing boat," she said. "He loves fishing, and he's really good at it."

k.florin@theday.com

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