I live in a state that has been a leader in supporting vulnerable children, but national attention is focusing on how Connecticut failed one girl in state care. That focus is absolutely justified.
"Jane Doe" is a 16-year-old girl who experienced horrific abuse at the hands of various family members and of staff members in facilities were she was supposed to be helped. The Department of Children and Families has been involved with Jane for most of her life. DCF failed to prevent her from being raped, beaten and sexually trafficked. As a result of these failures, Jane is an angry and traumatized child who sometimes strikes out. Though she has never been convicted of — or even charged with — an adult crime, DCF petitioned a judge to send her to adult prison, where she has been held in isolation for 50 days as of this writing. The department says it will let her out when her behavior improves, though it has provided no treatment to promote such improvement.
Contrast this with other things that my state has done recently. It passed legislation to give children in DCF care access to high quality early childhood education. It provided a way out of poverty for many young families when it raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Back in 2007, we made history by being the first state in the nation that used public funds to support a diaper bank.
Those forward-thinking policies evidence a commitment to children in need. So how is it that the commissioner of DCF — legally Jane Doe's advocate and parent — petitioned a judge to send a wounded child convicted of no crime to adult prison? It was both a condemnation of Jane and an abandonment. While the state is dedicated to helping most children, it is resigned that some will be lost. It is resigned to creating Jane Does.
Much has been made of Jane's gender identity in the public debate. She is transgender, identifying as female though she appeared male at birth. LGBT kids are over-represented in child welfare and juvenile justice systems, in part because their own families sometimes reject them. They are also at high risk of being trafficked. Jane experienced both these traumas. Jane's gender identity is indeed important, though not in the way that DCF maintains. It is important because it clearly put her at risk for abuse. DCF failed to recognize this risk or to prevent the abuse. Now it is getting a pass on its reprehensible treatment of Jane because she is deemed difficult to place.
DCF has gotten national praise for reducing the number of children in institutional care, instead favoring the placement of children in foster families or leaving them in their own families with some monitoring. Philosophically, this makes a world of sense. But practically, there are children who are so traumatized that living in a family setting is difficult without extensive support, support that does not exist in our state. In closing residential facilities, DCF left nowhere for these children to go — other than juvenile prisons. Or in the case of Jane Doe, an adult prison.
Jane Doe's case is important because it points out failures in Connecticut's child welfare system and in child welfare systems across the country. It shows how bad we are at providing services that help the most traumatized children heal. Instead, we shuffle them into the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems for the behaviors that spring from those traumas. We fail kids who are LGBT. We criminalize children who are sexually trafficked. These are the hardest cases — the kinds that don't show up on websites or brochures as success stories. Our obligation to these children is not less because of the enormity of their challenges. It is greater.
Jane Doe's case is indicative of systemic problems. But that is not the primary reason why this case matters. It matters because of Jane, because of one child. The well being of one child is as important as a mountain of policy. The state's duty to protect each and every child in its care is nothing short of sacred.
It is a duty that Connecticut has failed, failed by choice, to carry out.