The mother of a 14-year-old girl who was housed at the Short Term Assessment & Respite (STAR) Home for girls in Harwinton, Connecticut has filed a lawsuit in Superior Court seeking monetary damages after the teenager was physically assaulted and exposed to dangerous conditions.
The STAR Home was the subject of a recent Inside Investigator feature article, which documented numerous instances of assaults against the minor residents, sexual assault by staff and others, sex-trafficking charges and numerous other incidents over the course of 2021, 2022 and 2023 as the home – run by The Bridge Family Center, a nonprofit organization – experienced deteriorating conditions in the home and an inability to maintain a safe environment.
The STAR Home, and several others like it operated by The Bridge, is funded almost entirely through the Department of Children and Families (DCF). The lawsuit was filed against Bridge Family Center and the names of the plaintiffs are being kept anonymous in court records to protect the teenager’s identity.
According to the lawsuit, “Jane Doe” was housed at the STAR home from April to July of 2023, before DCF effectively emptied the shelter but for one remaining girl and Bridge Family Center moved to replace its staff and bring in outside consultants to help develop new policies.
“During her period of residency at the defendant’s Harwinton facility, Jane Doe was physically assaulted while at the facility and she suffered physical injuries as a result of the physical assault,” attorney Timothy O’Keefe of Kenny, O’Keefe & Usseglio, P.C. wrote in the complaint. “Jane Doe, a minor child who was committed to the care and custody of the defendant, was not provided with proper care and supervision and these failures led to her being exposed to other inappropriate activities at the defendant’s facility which activities included the sexual assault of minors and other illegal activities.”
According to a memorandum written by State Trooper Gregory Kenny and Nicholas Baldwin obtained by CII and included in the initial report, between May and June of 2023, when Jane Doe was housed at the facility, there was a melee by the residents that resulted in troopers and emergency response personnel being assaulted, several girls ran away from the home and were arrested for threatening, a staff vehicle was stolen, and State Police were investigating the sexual assault of four residents by an adult female staff member.
“We are talking here about an extremely vulnerable group of young girls. The operator of the facility was given a very lucrative state contract. In exchange for significant sums of money, the operator of the facility made promises to provide care and supervision for these girls,” said attorney for the family Tim O’Keefe in an emailed statement. “Obviously, from the information that has been reported, the defendant betrayed the trust of these girls, their families and the citizens of the State of Connecticut. We will seek to hold them legally accountable for the harms and losses sustained in this instance.”
The plaintiffs argue The Bridge Family Center was negligent in their care, failing to properly supervise the residents, follow a support plan, supervise their staff and equip the facility with the proper security equipment or staff. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff suffered physical injuries; exposure to illegal activities; “great fear, distress, guilt shame and humiliation; and an aggravation of her existing emotional and psychological condition.”
In an emailed statement, Bridge Family Center’s Executive Director Margaret Hann said it is the first lawsuit against Bridge in her 25 years as executive director.
“Last year alone, we served the needs of more than 9,000 people through our programs, many of whom have suffered through unimaginable situations,” Hann said. “The allegations that have come forward are something that we never want to see happen to anyone and because it is now a legal matter, we cannot discuss it publicly, even though there are additional details in this case that will eventually be divulged.”
In a previous interview with CII, Bridge Family Center Margaret Hann acknowledged that the Harwinton STAR Home “had some serious incidents,” and said that her organization has undertaken efforts to replace staff and revise their policies – some of which are dictated by DCF, such as allowing the girls to have cell phones.
Ken Mysogland, spokesman for DCF, said they are also working with Bridge Family Center to ensure the facility can return to full operation, but said The Bridge Family Center was a long-time contractor and DCF was taking actions to ensure the safety of the facility.
“Immediate and corrective measures were taken and we are in constant communication with DCF and those involved in this on-going matter,” Hann continued. “Our main focus continues to be addressing the immediate and day to day needs for our residents, many of whom are trauma survivors through no fault of their own and to offer them care and support that they need and deserve.”
Harwinton town officials, including emergency responders and State Police said the numerous calls to the residence was creating an unsafe environment for both the town residents and the girls housed there in DCF custody by monopolizing emergency services and creating dangerous situations.
A former clinician at the STAR home said that due to a lack of available services, some of the girls housed at the facility were there for upwards of a year and that the acuity of the girls – many of whom come from horrible situations at home and have been sex trafficked – has increased in recent years.
After the initial report broke, Republicans in General Assembly issued a letter to the chairs of the legislature’s Committee on Children and to DCF Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes calling for a formal inquiry into the home and a hearing on the matter. According to the Hartford Courant, co-chair of the Children’s Committee Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said she was speaking with DCF and would undertake a hearing if facts “warrant further investigation.”
The Bridge Family Center, which not only runs four STAR Homes for both boys and girls in the state but numerous other behavioral and mental health services, had a total budget of $8.4 million in 2022, including $6.5 million from the government. The nonprofit also fundraises to support its activities, resulting in another $690,943 in 2022, but, like most nonprofits working for the state, they say funding has fallen short of what they need to gain and retain staff.
“Connecticut’s taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent. We would encourage the appropriate state legislative body to do a full investigation into the failures that occurred at this temporary shelter for young girls. Hopefully, this litigation will also help to shed some light on what occurred at this facility,” O’Keefe said.
The lawsuit is seeking damages in excess of $15,000, punitive damages and any other relief the court deems appropriate.
**This article was updated to include Margaret Hann’s statement**