In Harwinton, Connecticut – a small one-traffic-light town of roughly 5,500 people – state police and local emergency services responded 16 times in little more than a month to a single residence: an emergency shelter for adolescent girls who have been removed from their families, are facing mental or behavioral problems and are in the care of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families (DCF).

That one month, May 2023 into the first week of June, is a snapshot of an ongoing issue at the Short Term Assessment & Respite (STAR) Home in Harwinton. The past two years have seen EMS and Connecticut State Troopers called to the shelter hundreds of times and numerous arrests of teenage girls and STAR staff members. There have been missing girls, stolen vehicles, burglaries, physical and sexual assaults, sex trafficking and injuries to both STAR residents and state troopers responding to melees within the home.

The STAR home is one of four such emergency shelters in Connecticut run by the Bridge Family Center, a nonprofit that has contracted with DCF and which receives the vast majority of its funding – $6.5 million – from the government. According to Connecticut’s open data website, the Bridge Family Center received $5.5 million from Connecticut in 2023. Not all that funding goes toward the shelters, however, as Bridge Family Center also runs a number of other programs. The shelters are separated into homes for adolescent girls and boys. The STAR Home in Harwinton costs $714,445, according to Bridge Family Center’s 2022 financial report.

The calls for service to the home in Harwinton over the past few years have strained the small town’s resources – they have only two ambulances and a resident state trooper – and left Harwinton’s EMS services, state trooper and town officials in the precarious position of not having enough resources to both respond to the numerous and escalating problems at the STAR home and have responders on hand to meet residents’ needs.

During one incident in May of 2023, Aaron Franzi the Deputy Chief of Administration for Harwinton EMS fired off an email to First Selectman Michael Criss and several others, saying there were “currently zero ambulances available for Harwinton residents,” because they were all tied up at the STAR Home, and exclaiming “This is a crisis!!!”

The problems at the shelter prompted the head of Harwinton’s EMS services to send a letter – twice – directly to DCF Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes expressing his “grave concern for the status of the Bridge Family Center’s STAR home.”

“There has been a noticeable change in the violence that takes place within this home, without any recourse to the juveniles that are present, and without any oversight by the staff on site. It has truly become a proverbial ‘free for all’ in regards to the actions of those that are temporarily placed,” wrote Kevin Ferrarotti, chief of service for Harwinton EMS, in a May 10, 2023 letter to Doarantes. “In the most recent case, the residents assaulted Connecticut State Police troopers coming to de-escalate a situation. None of which, we feel would occur if there was proper oversight, or protocols in place to assure juveniles of this extreme are placed in programs and centers with higher level of care.”

Some of the numerous incidents that have occurred at the home, which from the outside appears to be a typical house tucked away in the woodsy enclaves of Harwinton, were cataloged by Resident State Trooper Gregory Kenny in a memorandum to First Selectman Criss, including the following:

  • The arrest of a 26-year old man on sex-trafficking charges for attempting to pick up a 14-year old girl from the home after she communicated with him via a dating app on her cell phone.
  • The arrest of a 42-year old male staff member for sexual intercourse with a 14-year old female resident of the STAR home.
  • The arrest of 39-year old male staff member for physically assaulting a 17-year old female resident after “kneeling and using bodyweight to hold her to the ground after slamming her to the ground several times.”
  • The arrest of an 18-year old biological male who was transitioning to female for sexually assaulting a 15-year old female in the home.
  • A melee involving four girls barricading themselves in the home, locking out staff, and requiring seven state troopers and multiple ambulances to be called to the scene, resulting in assaults on the state troopers and the arrest of the four juveniles.
  • Three juveniles who went AWOL from the home after destroying property, and no staff from the home was out looking for them.
  • The theft of STAR Home’s vehicle by two female residents who had previously locked themselves in the house office and gained access to the vehicle’s keys. As of the date of the memorandum, the vehicle was still missing.
  • The sexual assault of four female residents between the ages of 14 and 17 by a 25-year-old female staff member. An arrest warrant was being drafted for the staff member at the time of the memorandum.
  • A second STAR Home vehicle stolen by three female residents after overpowering staff, resulting in the arrest of all three residents.

These were merely snippets of the hundreds of calls that state troopers and EMS responded to at the girls’ shelter between 2020 and 2023, according to a list of dispatch calls compiled by the state trooper, including 36 arrests in 2023 alone of both shelter residents and outside parties.

“DCF continues to place juveniles at the STAR Home with acute behavioral issues that are well beyond the level of care that staff and the STAR Home program can provide,” wrote Trooper Kenny. “This practice puts STAR Home staff/residents, responding Troopers, Emergency Service Members and the Harwinton Community in danger and has resulted over the past year in the injury to Troopers, Staff and Juvenile Residents. The STAR Home is classified as a shelter, yet juveniles on probation and with ankle monitoring bracelets continue to be placed at the STAR Home. I believe that many of these incidents and injuries could have been prevented if the juveniles were placed in a proper program with a higher level of care.”

Perhaps equally disturbing, Trooper Kenny makes clear that the Bridge Family Center is actively encouraging staff to not report incidents to authorities.

“It appears the STAR Home is now failing to report incidents to the State Police in an attempt to lower their total calls for service,” Kenny wrote. “The staff has informed responding Troopers that there is a company policy in place where STAR Home staff must call an on-call supervisor for the STAR Home to receive permission/directives prior to contacting police. This yet again is causing more harm than good and can be directly attributed to why situations involving these juveniles are continuing to escalate.”

In a separate June 7, 2023, email to numerous officials in DCF, Kenny detailed his concerns and outlined an incident in which three adolescent girls had gone AWOL but no staff members were looking for them, writing: “When asked by Trooper why staff had not contacted State Police to report the incident and juveniles AWOL, staff informed Troopers they had been directed not to contact the police by STAR Home management.”

Another incident detailed in the email noted that on May 23, 2023, “five juveniles were missing from the STAR Home at the same time,” Kenny wrote. “My understanding is that the STAR Home’s total occupancy is (6) six juveniles and yet (5) five were unaccounted for with no staff following the residents.”

“I requested in my email to DCF that they take some type of action to safeguard the well-being of these juveniles and the community you have placed them in,” Kenny continued in his memorandum. “DCF’s failure to act is eventually going to result in someone being seriously injured at the STAR Home or a member of the Harwinton Community.”

It has not always been like this at the STAR Home in Harwinton, which was established in 2008 by DCF over the concerns of town residents. The State of Connecticut has the ability to choose the municipalities to place these kinds of shelters without approval from the municipality or the residents, but the home was largely quiet until the past two or three years.

“I’ve been with EMS for 15 years and we’ve had our dealings with what’s going on there but never to the extent of the most recent year or so,” Franzi said in an interview. “Our responses to the location have skyrocketed in the last year. I think as of the June meeting we had already been there more times than we had in years past, for the year. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the day of the brawl. That depleted our services in town. I had both of my ambulances there for that and then we had to pull Burlington Mutual Aid to help us because we had so many patients.”

That “brawl” took place on May 30, 2023, during which the girls took over the shelter, resulting in assaults on state troopers, who ultimately declined medical attention. Harwinton First Selectman Michael Criss, well aware of the escalating incidents at the home, responded to the call personally and watched it all unfold.

“It was nothing I’d ever seen in Harwinton, it was eye-opening to say the least,” Criss said in an interview. “Mattresses out the window, fruit being thrown, shaving cream, police officers being punched in the face, hair being pulled, all sorts of stuff. We had EMS staff being assaulted in the back of the ambulance. It was like everywhere you looked you had some sort of assault going on and it resulted in everybody in the house either being arrested or taken to the hospital.”

Criss says STAR Home staff members hid in their cars, locking the doors to avoid the situation. Criss says while on scene he tried in vain to reach management at the Bridge Family Center to find out what to do and what their protocols were for a situation like that. When he finally reached someone, they asked why the staff and troopers just didn’t put the girls back in the home.

“That’s great, but for one, they’re not going to stay and, second, your staff is scared, quite honestly, and they’re locked in their cars and don’t want to return,” Criss said. “They didn’t have a protocol for an event like this.”

The brawl resulted in a meeting between Harwinton officials, DCF, and several state legislators that took place in Harwinton on July 13, 2023. It was the second such meeting following a similarly chaotic year for the STAR Home in 2022.

“That [2022] meeting we were promised there were going to be big changes, all these changes were going to happen, they were going to put protocols in place, they were going to better evaluate the clientele coming in to make sure they’re going to right facilities,” Criss said. “It subsided for a couple weeks and then it ramped right back up again. It was just crazy. And I think what put me over the top was actually seeing my resident state troopers and emergency responders being assaulted.”

In response to the escalating situation in 2023, DCF essentially emptied the shelter. Bridge management replaced most of the staff and left only one girl at the home; but Criss worries that after this brief interlude the situation may come back again in the future – largely due to a lack of services in Connecticut for juveniles.

Part of the problem, in Criss’s view, is the lackadaisical nature of the shelter, where girls who have been removed from horrendous situations and dealing with numerous mental and behavioral issues, are allowed to come and go as they please and have use of their cell phones to continue communicating with the life they left behind which can sometimes involve sex trafficking.

Criss believes the way the STAR Home is run puts both the girls and the whole community at risk, particularly if adult men seeking out these girls travel to Harwinton to meet them.

The STAR Home residents have been responsible for burglaries – including breaking into and stealing from the town’s Public Works Department twice. While AWOL at night, they occasionally knock on residents’ doors at two and three in the morning requesting to use the phone, which could be a dangerous prospect. There was also damage to public property at the Harwinton sports fields.

“When you’ve got men coming here soliciting sex outside the home that to me is, from a municipal standpoint, creating a public safety concern for my residents,” Criss said. “It could be a tragedy, a real tragedy, and you’re creating this safety hazard that is coming in where you’re getting destruction of property and break ins and all this stuff going on.”

The girls often go AWOL, requiring the state troopers to look for them. In many instances, it’s just for a few hours, but in other instances it has been days before they find the girl, sometimes in a city as far away as Hartford. During the meeting with DCF, the idea of placing ankle monitors on the girls as a means of finding them more quickly was floated, but Criss believes the home’s open policies are just facilitating the problem.

“According to what STAR Home is reporting, they’re not allowed to keep them in the home, they’re not allowed to restrain them, not allowed to tell them, ‘No you can’t go out.’ There’s no curfew on the home, there’s nothing,” Criss said. “There are just no controls in place; it’s not a locked facility so the kids are allowed to come and go as they please, they don’t take the cell phone from the kids that are in there and they’re allowed to have full contact with the life they’re trying to get them out of. Well, to me, that’s not an effective way to help them.”

“A lot of those girls, when they go AWOL, they’re only gone for a few hours,” said Franzi. “When we’ve been there, we’ve had a few people who have very vocally voiced their opinions — myself being one of them — to the staff at the facility. They’re so casual about it, and we’re like, this girl is running around Harwinton at two in the morning, this isn’t normal, especially in a small community where you know everybody, and you see some random person walking up to your door at two in the morning? It’s terrifying.”

“They’re setting them up to have access to the original situation they were in instead of putting in a stop and breaking the habits of what they’ve been dealing with their entire life,” Franzi said. “These girls come from these horrible situations, a situation nobody would want to be involved in or have anything to do with and it’s the state’s responsibility to break the habits and stop the chain of events leading up to these situations.”

Franzi says that when they are called to the STAR Home for assaults or the girls harming themselves, they make a report to DCF as a mandated reporter, but that the department doesn’t appear interested in hearing about it.

In a May 4, 2023, email Franzi wrote that they filed “another DCF complaint,” when a first responder arrived at the STAR Home and found a girl had self-harmed three days prior and that staff was unaware of it.

“Over THREE DAYS they failed to notice a juvenile with self inflicted injuries, this makes me sick to my stomach knowing that DCF fails to protect these girls and we have our hands tied! The girl today stated she doesn’t feel safe because the other girls destroyed her property the other day and staff’s solution was to move her bedroom… in the same home with the same roommates,” Franzi wrote. “How can I file a DCF report against another family in town, for something less severe, and DCF immediately handles it? But they allow further emotional and physical abuse at a shelter they apparently oversee.”

“I’d say we’ve had ten reports this year to the DCF hotline for mandated reporters and none of them have been investigated, they’ve all been kiboshed,” Franzi said. “It’s smoke and mirrors with them. They say they’re doing one thing and the next day they’re not. There’s no consistency with what’s going on at that home.”

Ken Mysogland, director of communications for DCF who participated in the meetings with Harwinton officials, says they were well-aware of the incidents at the STAR Home in Harwinton and conducted joint investigations with the state police per their protocols. “We continue to work with the leadership of the agency and town officials to stabilize the situation.”

Margaret Hann, executive director of Bridge Family Center, says her organization was also well-aware of the problems at the STAR Home and is actively taking steps to address them. “We had some serious incidents in Harwinton, you’re not going to get any argument from me on that at all. And because of that we made some sweeping program changes.”

“We’ve had a very positive relationship in the community of Harwinton, and I understand the concerns here, absolutely,” Hann said. “I just want to be clear that we’re doing everything we can and will continue to do to have open lines of communication and to listen to the concerns of the community and address those as they arise.”

According to Hann, some of the increase in calls to the STAR Home may be the result of an internal policy change last year; youth who leave the home and are gone for more than an hour are reported as AWOL whereas previously the time limit had been three hours.

Typically, if a youth runs away from the program, staff will try to follow either on foot or by car, but without turning it into a chase through neighbors’ yards. However, in the case of multiple youth running away at once, it is impossible for staff to follow them all. Depending on the time of day, there are two to three staff members in the home, and someone has to remain on premises. Sometimes, the kids are picked up in cars after leaving on foot, making following them nearly impossible and, naturally, warranting a call to state police.

“You have to remember that a lot of kids who come to our care – and this is historical, the Bridge opened our first shelter in 1978 – they’re kids who have been abused, neglected and abandoned their entire lives, so their ability to form a connection with an adult is very difficult and for good reason,” Hann said. “So, we really try the best that we can to form a relationship with that child when they’re with us so they don’t want to run away. We’re not always successful in that.”

Hann says the shelter does have rules and that residents are given curfews on an individual basis depending on their needed level of care. However, the cell phones, which some residents have used to connect with adult men or call for rides when they run away, is something DCF wants for the program.

“They are allowed to have their cell phones because that what DCF wants, to make sure they have their cell phones, especially a domestic minor sex trafficking kid,” Hann said. “It’s kind of a double edge sword but, yes, sometimes those kids use their cell phones to make inappropriate contact. However, they also need those cell phones if they run away and are in harm’s way and have to contact us to come get them which frequently happens. So, we don’t want to take their cell phones from them.”

Whether those rules and curfews can actually be enforced is another matter. Mysogland said they cannot lock the youth in the shelter. To be placed in a locked facility requires a court order or an order from a psychiatrist.

“Emergency shelters are unlocked open settings. The youth who are placed into a STAR program attend school in the community, may have a job, and participate in activities outside of the facility such as sports, volunteer and attend behavioral health appointments with local professionals,” Mysogland wrote in an email. “Youth are only placed into a locked psychiatric facility per order of a Judge or Psychiatrist if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. Youth may be placed into a locked Detention facility or other Juvenile Justice placement per order of the court depending on the charges.”

So while not allowing a teenager to wander out in the middle of the night may seem like common sense to a parent, the state finds itself in a gray zone of wanting to house and protect these troubled youths, while lacking legal authority to restrain them in most situations. Essentially, these STAR programs are shelters, not juvenile prisons.

Harwinton is not the only home operated by the Bridge Family Center to have experienced such problems, but it certainly appears to have some of the most serious charges. The Winifred House, previously of Southington and operated by Bridge Family Center, was a subject of controversy in the town.

A report showing that calls for service to the Winifred House ranged from 24 to 98 per fiscal year, amounting to 553 police calls in little more than a decade and eliciting complaints from neighbors. 

In 2020, three girls and one staff member were arrested after the three girls were involved in an assault and the staff member neglected to report that a girl had cut herself with a piece of glass and then left the residence. Employees were suspended and DCF subsequently launched an investigation, according to the Record Journal. The Bridge Family Center currently lists the Winifred House as located in Hartford, listing no shelter in Southington.

Hann says the shelter was not moved from Southington to Hartford in response to the community’s concerns, however, but rather because the Hartford location — where Bridge had maintained a group home — was a larger house and closer to the youths’ family and community.

“This was not an immediate response to public concern that we moved the house at all. That had all significantly calmed down,” Hann said. “We don’t do that, we’re not going to do that. We’re there to stay. We’re there to do the best that we can, to listen to the community to serve the kids that we need to serve and do the best we can.” 

The Hastings House in Wolcott, a shelter for adolescent boys operated by Bridge Family Center, has experienced highs and lows of police and EMS activity, depending on who is placed in the shelter, according to Police Chief Edward Stephens.

“The number of calls fluctuate, depending on who is residing in the home at the time,” Stephens wrote in an email. “We will go for spells with zero incidents, then a month later we are there at least 4 times a week. Most of the calls we receive there are for when the residents take off. They usually always respond back when they are done doing whatever it is they do.”

“We also have a very good relationship with the staff and meet regularly,” Stephens added.

For Harwinton First Selectman Criss, however, the deterioration of the STAR Home in Harwinton is emblematic of a larger, systemic problem in Connecticut and within DCF and law enforcement for juveniles more generally.

“I don’t know if it’s the contractor, I don’t know if it’s DCF, but it’s all linked,” Criss said. “The reality is we are not doing what we should be doing for these youth and by putting them in these group homes and allowing sexual assault to go on from staff members, where are the checks and balances? Where is the oversight from DCF at that point?”

Theresa Cirillo was the clinical coordinator for the STAR Home in Harwinton for seven years up until she finally decided she couldn’t take it anymore and left in March of 2023. Essentially a 9-5 employee who was on call during weekends and nights, Cirillo said the escalating violence at the home pushed her out.

“Things have gotten much worse. It was more than time. I was burnt out,” Cirillo said in an interview. “I was getting assaulted more in the last three or four months than I had in seven years — physically assaulted by residents — and the feedback [from management] was kind of ‘Well, this is part of the job.’ No, it’s’ not part of the job, not to that extent. Nine months prior I had a homemade shank pulled on me right in front of the troopers. The troopers pushed me out of the way, so the shank didn’t go into my body. So no, that’s the excessiveness of what we’re dealing with.”

Cirillo was there for many of the incidents detailed in the State Trooper Kenny’s memorandum, but not all, and many of them occurred during weekends or at night when she was not actually on premises, but she would get the calls. 

Cirillo says there was a lot of blame-casting by Bridge Family Center management for the escalating issues at STAR Home.

“You’re talking calls at one, two, three in the morning for an emergency and about handling crises, which is absolutely part of the job,” Cirillo said. “But when you’re talking about the AWOLs that are increasing, the behaviors that are increasing and people want answers? Well it’s so and so’s fault, it’s this person’s fault because they didn’t do XYZ. And senior management, well it’s this person and this person who is supposed to be handling that.”

First Selectman Criss questioned the Bridge Family Center’s hiring practices, considering the sexual and physical assault of girls under their care, saying he believed only a minimal amount of experience was required by management.

Hann said that hiring for youth workers is done by the program manager of the home. Employment does not require a Bachelor’s degree, but they must have experience in the human services field and Bridge conducts a full background check and drug testing before they set foot in the door. Clinicians and program managers were hired by upper management, including herself.

“Unfortunately, in any profession there are some people who are not fit for the job and unfortunately that makes a very bad name and a very bad mark for those of us who do our job to the fullest and are appropriate for the job,” Cirillo said. “That’s all I know to say. It does not leave a good mark or good taste in people’s mouth after that comes out.”

“Do providers make mistake, do we hire people we shouldn’t hire?” Hann asked. “I don’t think there’s a business in Connecticut that doesn’t do that, whether or not they’re a provider or they run a widget factory. It’s not necessarily that piece of it — its that you address those concerns and you do whatever you can do to make sure you improve the level of care you’re providing.”

Cirillo says she and the staff of STAR Homes always had a good relationship with the resident troopers, inviting them in to meet the girls or stop by unannounced for a visit. She said there were very few assaults on officers during her tenure, but there were some. She was not working at STAR Home during the brawl.

“I hate to say I take pride in that, but I do. The girls were never that volatile to the troopers when I worked in Harwinton,” Cirillo said.

When asked whether staff were being directed to not call the troopers regarding incidents at the STAR Home, however, Cirillo said, “Absolutely.”

“Absolutely, you can stop right there, and it was not in-house management,” Cirillo said. “If I were to go out on a limb, if I knew what the troopers were writing, it was senior management. I would absolutely agree with that whole heartedly. Yes.”

Cirillo speculated that senior management was concerned that what happened at the Winifred House in Southington being moved to Hartford would happen again at the STAR Home in Harwinton, despite Hann saying the complaints and calls were not the reason for the move.

“I know that because our numbers were starting to increase significantly in the last year I was there, the incidents were getting a little more dangerous or a little more serious,” Cirillo said. “The concerns and the feedback were coming to us from the town officials and such and, again, senior management did not like that. They like the Bridge to be positively shown, not negatively shown, and being out in Harwinton you don’t want the spotlight on you in any sort of negative way shape or form.”

“I think it’s absolutely, highly inappropriate and disgusting to hear that,” Criss said. “Do I believe it’s happening? Yes. I believe my troopers and I believe my emergency responders all telling me the same thing — that they were being discouraged from reporting those incidences. Maybe they don’t want their numbers to go up, but you have to report it. It’s the law and if those individuals are telling my first responders and state police that they should not be reporting, they all need to be fired immediately.”

Hann, however, says this was absolutely not the case and DCF concurs: “That accusation was made in front of our director of residential services who has been with us a very long time, who is a [Licensed Clinical Social Worker] and is very well versed, and I do believe that that accusation was cleared up,” Hann said. “They were not instructed to not call the police. We train the staff to call the police when there is an emergency such as AWOL, medical or psychiatric emergency. If staff are able to use their training to deescalate a situation we do not call the police needlessly, that would be a waste of resources.”

Mysogland wrote that DCF discussed these accusations with Bridge management and “believe they have been greatly taken out of context.” 

However, Cirillo faults Connecticut’s DCF system and state policies largely for the increase in violence and problems at the STAR Home, saying continuous closures of juvenile facilities and group homes over the last decade have left these girls and boys who have lived through horrendous situations with nowhere to go and are often stuck when they get to the STAR Home. 

The typical stay at STAR Home is meant to be 4-8 weeks, but Cirillo says that by the time she left, some girls were stuck there for upwards of a year waiting for placement with either a foster home, a residential group home, or possible reunification with their family. She also says the home has a “no eject, no reject” policy, meaning no girls will be ejected from the home and they won’t say no to any DCF placement in the home, no matter what issue the girl is facing.

“Girls are staying close to a year if not longer because there is no place to go,” Cirillo said. “This is multi-fold. Our justice system is so inundated because our lawmakers from years ago shut down so many of the needed facilities and there are no places for these kiddos to go. So many of our residential facilities, so many of the group homes, they shut those down.”

“We can’t find a place for them to go; we can’t find foster homes, we can’t find group homes, nobody will take them. Why is that? Because these kiddos are having more and more problems, mental health, behavioral,” Cirillo said, echoing what mental health advocate organizations have been saying for decades before the COVID-19 pandemic put youth mental health in a legislative spotlight in 2022 as emergency rooms and mental health facilities were pushed to the brink.

“The state system of care is a cart-house, you can’t move one cart without affecting the other carts,” Hann said. “Where it has become a challenge is that this has moved ahead pretty quickly to a drastic reduction in congregate care beds in the state of Connecticut. Has it taken a toll on the kids who have kind of fallen through between the cracks? Yes, it definitely has.”

Mysogland, however, says that the state has simply been right-sizing its services in response to less need in the past, while simultaneously putting more resources in places where there is increased need.

“I don’t know if there’s one single factor that has led us to this point. The department has right sized our system due to under-utilization in particular areas to increase utilization in others,” Mysogland said in an interview. “I think as our systems across Connecticut grow and we learn more about the youth and families in front of us, we become better adept at understanding the complexity of problems. Whereby in years past, maybe we didn’t recognize or understand fully all of what was being presented to us when we dealt with the youth that came to our attention.”

But Cirillo also says DCF has a major role to play in how these cases are handled and where children are placed.

“It’s a broken system. DCF wants to preserve families they want to keep families intact. I have a family and I understand that. However, not every family wants to remain together, not every family should remain together. I know that’s horrible to say, however, not every family is willing to do the work that needs to be done and I got girls at Harwinton who had significant, significant trauma whether at the hands of their biological family or at the hands of a foster family,” Cirillo said.

Hann says that while the Bridge is part of the discharge planning process they are a child care organization, not a child placement organization, and that finding homes for teenagers, particularly troubled ones, has been an ongoing problem over the course of her career.

“DCF really tries to do that whenever possible — find suitable family or kin to take that child — which is sometimes it works our great, sometimes it doesn’t. Some families are generationally deep with addiction issues, abuse, neglect, abandonment,” Hann said. “So finding suitable homes for teenagers is challenging.” 

“The youth who experience longer stays are often those who repeatedly run away from many foster homes and therapeutic settings to the point options become limited,” Mysogland wrote. “We historically have had great success with our licensed foster home/caregivers and treatment programs taking in youth with some of the most challenging circumstances, unfortunately, now the challenge is keeping them there. There is a national and statewide challenge related to finding family-based placement options for youth.”

Cirillo also says that some DCF workers would only check in on their girls every two to three weeks, which was “just awful,” and that the girls did poorly under those circumstances. However, those workers who checked in multiple times a week, she says, saw the girls do better overall and made great strides.

DCF says for youth placed in out-of-home care settings, the “visitation standard is that they are seen — meaningful interaction occurs with them on a monthly basis,” but that frequency may increase depending on a resident’s circumstances. “Department personnel remain in close contact with STAR staff to ensure individualized care and support is provided to each youth,” DCF responded.

Cirillo also said the referral system for DCF needs reform, particularly when it comes to placing the youth in a needed higher level of care – referrals that were often rejected.

“You had to have every I dotted, every T crossed,” Cirillo said. “You had to have your ducks in a row to prove why that recommendation was the recommendation that needed to be the only one and, because we don’t have the resources in Connecticut, some of our kiddos were being recommended for referrals out of state and they don’t like doing that.”

“We are that state right now,” Cirillo said. “Even getting a kiddo inpatient for mental health stabilization is a crisis right now. We are in that crisis state. We need our lawmakers, and we need senior DCF officials to see that and see that when places like a STAR shelter are calling for emergency services it’s not because they don’t want to handle the situation, it’s because there is a crisis.”

Despite the problems and strain on resources the shelter has caused Harwinton as of late, town and EMS officials say they don’t want to see the STAR Home shut down – rather they want to see some solutions and basic, common-sense rules put in place. As indicated before, the shelter was relatively quiet in the nearly 12 years of operation until these recent events.

“The ambulance’s view, we don’t want the group home shut down and completely abolished because we know if that happens there’s not going to be a place for these girls,” Franzi said. “We just want DCF to do their jobs and to protect the parties involved — whether it’s the girls, state police, staff — get some proper resources to the group home.”

Criss says he doesn’t believe Harwinton is the most ideal place for the shelter; a rural, quiet town out in “the boonies” may leave the girls festering for something to do. He made it a point to meet with the girls at the shelter and encourage them to get involved with the community through volunteering for the town or a nonprofit.

“Do I want to push the home into another community? No. If the home is going to stay in Harwinton there needs to be better protocols for this home,” Criss said. Franzi noted that other towns that house similar homes, have larger police forces and more EMS services, making them better equipped to handle a high volume of calls than a town with two ambulances and a resident trooper.

“Our girls have a right to be in any neighborhood,” Hann said. “I think any place where we can provide the best level of care that we can provide is the best place for our kids.”

The meetings between town officials and DCF in Harwinton over the status of STAR Home are set to be continued, Criss said, and while DCF and the Bridge Family Center may be able to right the ship at STAR Home in Harwinton, the larger issue over juvenile mental and behavioral health, criminal justice, and reforming state government departments remains a lingering question.

“We have no beds; we have nothing to help these kids. We should be screaming that,” Criss said. “I’ve seen DCF at the Capitol stressing that they need this, but it’s not just throwing money at it but coming up with a plan. We’re working in a dysfunctional system, and it’s never been truly overhauled or repaired.”

Hann says that the Bridge, like other nonprofits, faces funding and staffing challenges. Bridge staff have received cost of living increases every year, regardless of whether the state has increased its funding, so the Bridge can compete against places like Target and Amazon for workers. They even pay staff in Harwinton a higher rate because it’s so difficult to hire for that location.

“Nonprofit organizations in the state of Connecticut are struggling and we’re struggling because we’re trying to pay our staff a living wage,” Hann said. “As we all know the workforce crisis across the country right now and particularly in Connecticut has taken its toll on all of us, particularly nonprofits who are really struggling to make ends meet when it comes to paying their staff a living wage.”

An overhaul of DCF is a tall order, particularly for a massive state department charged with navigating the complexities of families in crisis that sometimes have devastating results, but Mysogland says DCF is responding to the problems at the STAR Home to ensure the program has the tools necessary to move forward

“What you’re seeing here is exactly what a government agency should be doing when a problem is noted about a contracted provider. Issues were brought to our attention by the state police, by the town, we met with the administration at the star program, we decided it was best to put a hold on admissions,” Mysogland said. “The bridge has been a longstanding, very trusted provider of ours, they have done work with our children and youth and families for decades. There are problems in this facility that they are addressing and admissions will not be reopened and additional youth will not be placed there until we feel that the conditions of the corrective action plan have been met and they are in the position to provide optimal care to our kids who are in the department’s care and custody.”

Part of that corrective action plan involves DCF making unannounced visits to the shelter. Hann says the Bridge is also contracting with an outside consultancy group with experience in dealing with traumatized and sex-trafficked youth to give change recommendations and better staff training.

“They will come out and observe the program, and this is something Bridge is doing out of its own pocket, it’s not something that DCF is funding,” Hann said. “All nonprofits in the state — there’s a lot that we do beyond the call of duty to manage to take care of the kids we serve. It’s not in response to anything in Harwinton, it’s something that the Bridge feels the timing is right to really give our staff a new angle on behavioral management.”

Mysogland also says the state legislature has responded to the juvenile mental health crisis, passing a massive bill in 2022 aimed at increasing mental health services for teens in Connecticut.

Gov. Ned Lamont and DCF Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes recently announced the opening of four walk-in behavioral and mental health crisis clinics for adolescents. In that same press release, it noted that DCF is “also in the process of establishing a separate program for short-term care,” and is increasing provider reimbursements for psychiatric residential treatment facilities (PRTF) “to improve quality, oversight of service and expand the number of providers to increase access to PRTF level of care.”

“We are the process of opening two additional STAR programs for girls because we need more of these types of programs for females,” Mysogland said. “The State of Connecticut has also increased the number of psychiatric residential treatment facility beds who serve youth with a higher acuity of needs because we knew that was an emerging trend sitting right in front of us.” 

The new focus on juvenile mental and behavioral health is a welcome change following more than a decade of cuts. But, likewise, it will take time. There is no single solution to the situation in which Connecticut now finds itself, and while multiple solutions may be needed, it will take time and resources.

“There’s no beds, there’s no help. Let’s face it, the mental health care system has been underfunded for years and we’re okay as a society to classify mental illness as a stigma instead of saying mental illness is an illness and we need to help these people. Some of these kids may be suffering from severe PTSD,” Criss said.

Cirillo thinks it’s time for lawmakers and even DCF higher-ups to get into the trenches and see what people like her and the many other employees and contractors for DCF and Connecticut’s mental health system have to face on a daily basis.

“The big fix, the big picture is that our lawmakers need to come down to the trenches if you will and not just for an hour, not just for 10 minutes,” Cirillo said. “They need to be in the trenches for a week, they need to see what we do and on an hour-by-hour basis for a week and see exactly what has happened as a result of all of these closures — the group homes, the facilities — as a start.”

“I think everybody is just trying to do the best they can and I truly believe that,” Hann said. “But I think we need to keep our eyes open here; are all the children overall being served to the best of our ability? We have to keep asking ourselves that time and time again.”

“Sometimes the answer is ‘no’ and we can do better and we try to do better with limited resources and really struggling to hire people,” Hann said. “It’s very difficult right now.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels,...

Join the Conversation


  1. Wow very nice indepth article by the author. I am familiar with residential and what they need are stafff that are trained not someone to fill a slot. People who actually care and many times need to be a bit older and more experienced.

  2. Many of us know the hardships of mental health, personally or through family members and friends; and are very sensitive to Mental Illness issues. Americans need to realize that as a society we have become a very ill and non-functional society at all levels and “mental health” is overused as a weapon to excuse the ills of our society, including BAD and Unacceptable” behaviors. We need to focus on bringing back family values (many of society illness stem from a broken home), good behavior and good standards. We have become a selfish society that lacks love, compassion and GOD. When people realize where true love begins our society will heal and we can honestly help those individuals who truly are suffering. No one wants to talk about GOD because it is ” offensive” to many, but not talking about GOD=kindness=compassion=LOVE; has only turned our country into a very ill society. We can keep creating all types of programs to help people, but these will only work temporarily. I ask our government officials to encourage our courts, the media, and our society to find wholesome ways to truly heal our society as a whole. If we don’t do anything about this now, the only thing is we will continue to decline as a society.

    1. That was perfectly said.I am not an expert but do no that compassion empathy kindness and they need emotional support so much is needed but needed from the right people they need people to spend time with them care about them celebrate all their goodness I love kids and I always gave 100%™I no what it’s like to be abused and neglected my foundation was pulled out from me and when I had kids no one watched them but me yeh not having enough money sucked but the most important thing is they need special spending time connecting love Im so sorry alot of great workers but it’s not enough

  3. It sounds like there is a mismatch between the residents and the facility. As State Trooper Kenny said, “I believe that many of these incidents and injuries could have been prevented if the juveniles were placed in a PROPER PROGRAM with a HIGHER LEVEL OF CARE.”
    Why is the state placing high-risk juveniles in facilities that are essentially residential counseling centers? This is “The Facts of Live”, and Edna Garret is not the affable house mother that these girls need. The State of Connecticut is to blame, and the little town of Harwinton and the girls who need help are suffering because of it.

  4. Suffice to say that DCF is a completely bloated and out of control disaster of a state agency that should be shut down and a top-down audit performed. (As other states have done with their broken and corrupt CPS/DCF systems.)

    Between state and federal funding, DCF costs nearly $2,000,000,000 a year to operate. That’s $2 BILLION dollars. That comes to over $600/year for every man, woman and child in our state. What is your household paying?

    And this is the result and what taxpayers are getting for their money. Outrageous, unacceptable and yes, criminal.

  5. Kent has the same problem with High Watch Recovery, our volunteers are constantly being over used by them, leaving residents in Kent without EMS care, the tax payer is funding this non profit.

  6. America is crumbling. The character of the citizens is changing. Illegal aliens crossing into the United States is changing the very fabric in a very bad way.
    Thanks to our government criminals are allowed to commit crimes and not be punished. Our government is intentionally raising children to not be able to think for themselves ,to be lawless and disrespectful.
    DCF as a whole needs to be dismantled and rebuilt from the bottom up.
    There have always been children with traumatized childhoods, they don’t necessarily become violent. What is really going on?
    This will get much worse before it gets better.
    I don’t have a solution, but I know it lies and not raising messed up children, and not struggling accommodating them after they are “created.”

  7. The bridge is not even a great place for an animal. Margaret Hann is not a great Executive Director and it trickles down to the Director of Residential Services and so on and so forth. Without the proper resources the employees can not provide the proper care. DCF has allowed this to go on for so long without performing interventions immediately to make the changes immediately needed. I’m pretty sure this is not the only program experiencing these issues however this program is highlighted. A top down audit is indeed needed for all the emergency shelter programs.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *