Isolated but not cut off: Justice for Jane campaign rallies for transgender youth

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The protest group outside the fenced off Connecticut Department of Children and Families, (DCF) building in Hartford is 50 strong, and that’s just a microcosm of Justice for Jane Doe, a movement that-with a simultaneous demonstration in New York-is growing with the media coverage and nationwide attention that its cause has garnered in a matter of weeks.

On the other side of the gate is Joette Katz, the DCF Commissioner under fire for transferring a transgender youth to a correctional facility on allegations of “assaultive behavior”-a move that sparked outcry when it was suggested that the long-term placement could be Manson Correctional, a prison for males. A statute allows the Department to move a youth from DCF into a Department of Corrections facility if it has no other treatment options available, but this has not been utilized in 14 years.

An Op-Ed published in The Hartford Courant wherein which Katz reiterates her position-that Doe is too dangerous to be housed by DCF-has stoked the flames even more.

And at the center of the controversy is Jane Doe-going by the pseudonym given to the 16-year old whose name is not being disclosed because she is a minor-who is at York Correctional facility’s mental health ward in solitary confinement, where she spends 22-23 hours per day and is constantly supervised by a guard, even while using the shower or bathroom. She has been there since April 8.

Ironically, with all that has been said by voices on either side of the issue, Doe herself, with the exception of her affidavit, has not had the opportunity to be heard-until now.

Al Riccio, an activist from New Haven, grew up dealing with gender identity issues, so he can, at least on some level, relate to the challenges Doe has faced. Holding a megaphone, he reads the written statement released a day earlier by Aaron Romano, Doe’s attorney.

The letter begins by addressing the Op-Ed.

“People think they know me based on what they heard, but they know nothing about who I am,” Doe writes. “I admit that I have acted up and got into fights-many DCF kids fight with staff and other kids while in placement. I’m not saying it’s okay to do this, but I have stuff built up inside of me and don’t know how to deal with it sometimes. They say that trauma changes people and makes them act out. Believe me, it does.”

It starts when she was 8, in the home of her uncle-who the Department of Children and Families, (DCF) charged with the duty or caring for her when her mother was in drug rehabilitation and her father was incarcerated. Here she was raped by a cousin and beaten by her aunt and uncle. At one point she was locked in a closet for two days and deprived of food and water, the affidavit reads.

At age 12 she is removed from that home by DCF and placed in a residential facility in Eagleton, Massachusetts, where an employee sexually assaults her. A year later she’s living at Connecticut Children’s Place, where, on separate occasions, she’s raped by a DCF staff member and another resident, according to the document.

Since then, Doe has been raped by her mother’s boyfriend, her younger sister’s father, and escaped sex slavery in Norwalk. The list of incidents goes on and on, and she fears that if she is transferred out of DCF custody and into a male Department of Corrections facility-a possibility if she is assigned based on her biological gender-her past will collide with her future in a continued cycle of abuse that will stretch beyond what is alleged in the affidavit.

“All of these incidents cause me constant stress and replay in my head,” Doe says in the affidavit. “I’m tortured by these memories and have tried to block them out. If I were placed in a male correctional facility, I fear that I will be assaulted, would experience verbal and physical abuse, stress, and anxiety.”

It’s about a week before the DCF demonstration. The lecture room at the Yale Law School is packed, but only a little less than half of the audience is here to listen to Katz’s lecture about DCF logistics and Federal oversight. The story regarding Doe and the proposed transfer from DCF custody has reached the media, and consequently, the group of activists that includes local groups and Yale law students.

A DCF facility for juvenile girls with criminal convictions-which Katz lobbied aggressively to secure funding for-has just opened up in Middletown. Activists want to know why Doe-who herself was not formally convicted of any crimes-was not sent there.

“She is too dangerous for me to put in the female facility with the other seven traumatized women,” Katz tells the crowd. “The girls’ facility is set very much like a college dormitory. There’s no room for isolation. I didn’t want to make it look like a prison.”

Katz says that any suggestion that Doe might end up at Manson was not a proposal she made.

“I don’t get to tell the Commission of Corrections where to put a child,” she says. “We asked for York. I had several conversations with the Commission about York.”

According to Romano, the DCF’s motion had advised sending her to Manson, but during the discussion Katz told the audience that the original motion was withdrawn and amended not to specify which facility.

Chris Garaffa, one of the activists sitting in the lecture hall, holds up a copy of the affidavit.

“It outlines countless incidents of rape, assault, while under the care of DCF,” Garaffa says to Katz. “What are you doing today to ensure that those responsible are held accountable?”

DCF is in the process of conducting an internal investigation pertaining to what was detailed in the affidavit, Katz says.

“The allegations that you just identified, just came out,” she says. “I’ll tell you now, I hope it’s not true.”

The allegations on Doe have been out for a while, but only now, through her statement, has she had the chance to address them.

At Yale, Katz alleged “no less than 18” incidents wherein which Doe assaulted other residents or staff members. In the Courant Op-Ed, she says it was “at least a dozen” times. One claim-which came up in both the lecture and in the article-was that a social worker at a Massachusetts facility Doe was sent to for a stint was temporarily blinded during one of her outbursts.

“I didn’t blind anyone,” Doe writes. “DCF has said a lot of things to make me look like a monster. Just imagine how you would look if your worst enemy wrote every bad thing you’ve ever done and on top of that, made up things that weren’t true.”

DCF’s justification for transferring Doe to a correctional facility is the alleged violence, but what about systemic violence that manifests in the abuse of such individuals and the incarceration “remedies” that are resorted to when the victimized lash out? That is the question that the activists-a coalition of anti-mass incarceration and trans-advocacy groups from New Haven and Hartford-are asking as they picket the DCF building.

“This is not just about Jane Doe,” Garaffa says through the megaphone. “There are a million Jane Does that do not have this kind of press attention.”

Barbara Fair, a New Haven-based activist, sees a connection between Doe’s situation and the issues-mass incarceration-related-that her organization Brother’s Keeper deals with.

“We don’t help families in crisis by putting people in prison,” Fair says.

Athena Wagner, a retired corrections officer from Waterbury, can attest to that.

“I know what goes on in there,” Wagner says. “This is a child that has behavior problems and the commissioner’s only option is to put her in solitary confinement in a women’s prison?”

And there are even politicians amongst Doe’s supporters.

“They’re cutting our benefits, but yet they find the money to increase the budget of prisons, when we have children like Jane falling through the system,” says Chris Hutchinson, a 2010 congressional candidate. “What we need is safe housing for children with gender identity issues, and they shouldn’t be treated like criminals for defending themselves when they feel like they’re under attack.”

In her statement, Doe says that she needs help and wants it, but that she does not expect to get it in a prison setting. The thought of going to a male facility had her “freaking out”, and the environment at York-where she constantly hears patients screaming from other rooms-has not helped, she says.

And as for Katz’s perception of her?

“If Commissioner Katz wants to know who I am, she should come to the prison and meet me,” Doe writes. “We have all made mistakes but I don’t deserve this.”

Today, that is exactly what has happened. Romano has arrived at the rally as it nears its conclusion, and he does not have good news. The report is that Katz and Doe sat down for a talk, and that the commissioner told her that she will stay at York until “she proves herself”.

“There were no specific steps-goals she had to meet,” Romano tells the group of protesters. “It was going to be an indefinite term of incarceration.”

But DCF’s statement, issued by Communications Director Gary Kleeblatt in response to an email inquiry addressed to Katz, gave a different account.

“Their discussion focused on how the Department can help her find healthier ways to address the terrible abuse and trauma she has suffered and how important it is that the she receives treatment so that she can heal and move forward from those ordeals,” the statement read. “In addition, the Commissioner talked to her about continuing efforts with her lawyers and the Department of Corrections to move her to a more therapeutic treatment setting that will benefit her over the long term.”

How the conversation really played out is yet to be seen, but whether or not Doe is sent to that “more therapeutic setting” may tell the story. Either way, Romano and the Justice for Jane Doe campaign is determined to make sure that she gets there-whether DCF makes it easier for them or not.

“People across the country are outraged that the DCF would place a 16-year old in prison without charge,” Garaffa says. “We’re out here to remind Katz that this is not okay, and we will not go away.”

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