The mother of a 14-year-old severely autistic girl has filed a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) alleging harassment and discrimination after the girl was forcibly held down by staff members who cut off a lock of her braided hair as punishment for acting out.
The mother, Nancy Camp of Stamford, wrote in the complaint that her daughter, Ava, was placed at Adelbrook Behavioral & Developmental Services, Inc., in Cromwell because she has an I.Q. of 50, suffers from Austism and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder and requires full-time, around the clock care.
On June 24, 2023, Ava was acting out, “displaying typical behavioral issues” associated with her disability, according to the complaint, when three staff members, including a supervisor, threatened to cut her newly braided hair if she didn’t stop. When Ava did not comply, two of the staff members held her down, while a third took scissors and cut some of her hair.
“Adelbrook Behavioral & Developmental Services, Inc. discriminated against my autistic daughter, Ava Font, by torture, in forcibly pinning her onto the ground and cutting off her hair, as a form of discipline, because she exhibited symptoms of her disabilities,” Camp wrote in the CHRO complaint. “Clearly, they knew better, but they tortured her anyway. This cannot stand in the State of Connecticut in the 21st century, where this egregious form of torture constitutes discrimination in violation of both Connecticut General Law and the Fair Housing Act.”
The incident was witnessed by another Adelbrook employee who immediately reported it to his superiors. Adelbrook then informed Camp who contacted the police.
According to the police report, two of the staff members involved in the incident were placed on leave by Adelbrook pending an internal investigation. The report states that the employee who actually cut Ava’s hair said she did so because the supervisor had threatened the child with cutting her hair, “so she believed she was supposed to do it.”
The police report also indicates the officer spoke with an investigator from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) who said that he was substantiating two allegations of emotional neglect for the two employees who held Ava down and one allegation of physical neglect for the employee who cut Ava’s hair.
The investigating officer reported back to Camp that DCF was substantiating the allegations and that Adelbrook would be disciplining the employees. Satisfied with those findings, Camp declined to press criminal charges.
However, according to the complaint and Camp’s attorney Andrew Lieb, Adelbrook only terminated one employee and Ava must now continue living and working with the two employees who participated in the incident.
“As a result, Ava now lives in a perpetual state of fear wherein she is forced to relive this harrowing ordeal every time that she encounters these individuals who have authority over her,” Camp wrote.
Adelbrook CEO Alyssa Goduti, however, disputes that part of the complaint. Although emailed requests for comment were not returned prior to publication, Goduti reached out to CII following publication of this article saying the allegation that Adelbrook retained two of the employees is untrue.
“This was an isolated incident and Ädelbrook took prompt remedial action, including terminating the employees involved. The employees who were identified in the investigation by DCF no longer work for the organization,” Goduti wrote.
“First and foremost, we want to get Ava the compensation she deserves from the trauma from torture to be able to get the services she needs,” Lieb said in an interview. “Facilities like Adelbrook advertise on their website that they know how to deal with people who have forms of autism and have proper training and procedures.”
“She shouldn’t be subjected to corporeal punishment because she’s disabled and her disability causes her to act out, which causes the corporeal punishment,” Lieb continued. “We’re not saying it’s systemic. In discovery we’ll request all the records and if it is systemic, we’ll make it much bigger. I hope it’s not. I would feel much better if it’s not.”
Adelbrook began as the Swedish Christian Orphanage in 1900 and Adelbrook Community Services, Inc. was created as an affiliate in 2002, according to the organization’s website. A registered nonprofit, Adelbook is contracted with the Connecticut Department of Developmental Services (DDS) and provides education, residential treatment and therapeutic group homes for children and teens with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
According to the state’s open data website and Adelbrook’s 990 tax form, the organization received $10.79 million from the state in fiscal year 2022, with most of that going toward the housing and care of clients.
Because Camp is claiming this incident was due to discrimination based on her daughter’s intellectual disability, the complaint must first go before CHRO before a lawsuit can be filed in Connecticut Superior Court.
Adelbrook is also facing a lawsuit filed in 2020, alleging staff had “engaged in a pattern of abuse and inappropriate handling,” of an 11-year-old boy with autism, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, seizure disorder and intellectual disability.
The lawsuit alleges that over the course of two years the boy was subjected to “painful, physical and harmful mental tactics,” including chokeholds, throwing him into a chair and “launching a knee” into his chest and that the organization failed to report the alleged abuse or take appropriate action. One particular incident was apparently caught on tape, according to court records.
The family of the boy was offered a settlement of $500,000, but Goduti and their insurance carrier insisted the offer be withdrawn because it did not include a confidentiality and non-disparagement agreement, according to court records and transcripts.
According to court transcripts, Goduti said ensuring that there’s a confidentiality and non-disparagement agreement to block public knowledge of the settlement or release of the video was necessary to maintain existing relationships with clients and staff.
“In the State of Connecticut we’re one of the few agencies that serves kids with the level of acuity that we do and without context, this almost five-year-old tape could be incredibly damaging to our organization and really could hurt our staff, the trusting relationship we have with the many families that we’re currently supporting and the children,” Goduti said during a March 28, 2023 hearing.
According to testimony, the tape is short and did not include sound nor the “context” of the incident, “including the position of the staff and prior assaults that were made against our staff by the child,” Goduti said.
Superior Court Judge Susan Cobb rejected Adelbrook’s objection to the compromise agreement. According to the latest court filing, the plaintiffs submitted a request for computation of attorney fees and interest because they have not yet received settlement payment.
**This article was updated with Adelbrook CEO Alyssa Goduti’s comments**