This is the ultimate tragic story in voluntary services. As I have stated many times, DCF often does a good job; but when it goes wrong, it really goes wrong.
Alexandria Clouse-Desmond is now deceased. Her mother, Gina Desmond, granted me permission to print this case using their real names. The story was also previously mentioned in the Waterbury Republican-American, although with not much detail.
Alexandria Clouse-Desmond, known as Alex, was born on 2/28/89. Her parents divorced in 1998 after having been separated for 2-1/2 years. Alex remained with her mother, Gina. Her father had only supervised visitation.
It turned out that Alex needed medical and psychological help for numerous problems. She had been getting outpatient mental health services since she was 6 years old within the community, but nothing worked. Gina could not get enough money for adequate services from her ex-husband, and did not have insurance coverage. In desperation, she wrote to Gov. Rowland. She received a call from a staffer, telling her to contact DCF voluntary services.
Alex was actually admitted to DCF voluntary services on 1/10/02. She was assigned to a social worker, whom we shall call Clement, in the Waterbury DCF office. The Cheshire Probate Court was also involved. The Probate Court report noted that Alex was in a treatment center, the State was looking for group home for her, and that Gina would have to cooperate.
Gina maintains that Alex was sexually abused, and that that (along with her bipolar disorder) was the major cause of her mental problems. No one was ever arrested. DCF did investigate, and initially substantiated an alleged perpetrator, but that was later overturned. Later psychiatric hospital documents strongly implied that Alex was a victim of sexual abuse, but there was no official word on the perpetrator or the extent of the abuse.
It does seem strange that with so much reasonable cause to believe that an innocent child was sexually abused, no one was arrested or substantiated. Perhaps things are better now.
The DCF Treatment Plan, dated 2/8/05, stated as a matter of fact that Alex was sexually abused by a relative. This is an allegation, not evidence, and there has never been a court finding of that allegation. There is, however, no doubt that Alex was a severely-disturbed child in need of serious treatment. Her behaviors were a virtual textbook of adolescent psychopathology: violence; running away; refusal to do basic personal hygiene; suicidal threats; self-mutilation; threatening others; physically attacking other persons; refusal to take medications; etc. It seemed to be a problem without a solution. Alex was in and out of residential facilities and psychiatric hospitals; but nothing was helping her.
Meanwhile, Gina was getting constant pressure from DCF to “do more”; such as take Alex back home. Gina simply could not do this. She had remarried and had a young daughter. Alex had a history of offending behaviors against other children, which made it unsafe for her to be in the home. In fact, if Gina had knowingly taken Alex into her home when she had a young daughter there, that would indeed have been actionable child neglect, if not child abuse; and the younger daughter could legitimately have been removed by DCF.
On 5/15/05, Gina contacted me after having seen my web site. She asked if I could help. Not only was Alex not getting help, but Gina continued to get harassed by DCF, which was threatening to dump Alex back home because Gina was “not cooperating voluntarily.” Gina was petrified; she simply could not have a disturbed child in her home.
This, of course, is a perfect illustration of the dilemma of not having a general child welfare agency in the State. Had Gina been a millionaire, she could have placed Alex in a boarding school in Switzerland. Otherwise, she got no help. DCF is a child protection agency that will come in upon allegations that a child is being abused or neglected; but if a child simply needs help, that is not DCF’s direct mandate. DCF, again, is a child protection agency, and not a child welfare agency.
In all this time, Alex had a court-appointed lawyer through the Probate Court. She also had court-appointed lawyers in her various criminal cases. But no one was doing anything.
Hence, Gina came to me.
I discovered that Alex was now at High Meadows, which is a very good state group home in Hamden, CT. I myself have had several kids whom I represented placed there. In fact, my late wife and I were once licensed foster parents, and we had a kid who had been placed there.
Gina signed releases, and I then wrote to both High Meadows and to DCF, asking for information.
High Meadows was cooperative. DCF was at first livid that Gina had dared to hire a lawyer in a “voluntary” setting, but they gradually came around, and we got along fine. Clement, a high-strung and authoritative type was actually easy to work with once we got to understand each other.
I also contacted the Child Advocate. I have no illusions about this office, for several reasons, and was simply hoping for moral support. The Child Advocate, in fact, did respond.
I also got the Conn. Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) on board, as it appeared that Alex would need services after she turned 18. DMHAS does often help adults who have problems when no one else can.
Yale New Haven Hospital also provided records. It was pitiful. In addition to her noted psychological and psychiatric problems, Alex had a minor heart problem. There seemed no end to her troubles.
Amidst all this, there was some comic relief.
It seems that DCF had once sent Alex to a facility in South Carolina, which was, by all accounts, an excellent one. During that time, Alex had gotten sick, and had to see a doctor and go to the hospital. The South Carolina facility kept dunning Gina for payment of the bill, despite the fact that DCF was responsible and had repeatedly told that to the South Carolina people. Nothing got through to them.
I wrote numerous letters, citing the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Apparently they were routed to flunkies and thrown out.
Finally, I wrote to the Attorneys General of both Connecticut and South Carolina. Then I got back a written apology that the “error had been corrected.” This seems like a Marx Brothers farce, but it was not funny to Gina, who had to contend with difficulties every day of her life.
It took me months of letter-writing to straighten it out. One wonders what would have happened had Gina not been able to find a lawyer to advocate for her. Why could DCF have not ended the harassment from South Carolina using its own clout?
By 6/27/05, I had gathered enough information to write a detailed letter to the Superintendent of High Meadows, asking for a TPC (treatment planning conference) with all the players present, and all the issues on the table. I wrote a detailed agenda for the meeting, as I planned to take control, and not to be controlled by the State.
High Meadows and others were most cooperative, and the meeting was held on July 26, 2005. (It takes a while to get so many players together). Many agreements were made. Chief among them was the agreement that Alex would go to a new and promising group home in Danbury. Also, DCF would stop hounding Gina to take Alex home.
Sadly, things did not work out at first. Alex continued to go AWOL. She continued to get arrested and have court appearances. The Danbury group home was late getting off the ground.
Finally, Alex did get to the group home. But then she had more crises and required more hospitalizations. Clearly, and without finding fault, Alex was not being helped.
In two cases, Alex went to psychiatric facilities which told Gina to sign papers. Gina, as I had told her earlier, asked them to fax the papers to me first, as her lawyer. They balked with the usual “It’s not our policy.” I had to write to the CEO’s, insisting that Gina be treated like a human being, and there was no further trouble. Gina always got hassled like this.
I must say that until I took this case, I had no idea how much the health industry bureaucracies threw their weight around and hassled ordinary people. I simply cannot imagine what it’s like for people without lawyers.
In late January 2006, Alex, who was then in a psychiatric hospital, was moved Riverview Hospital, in Portland. I am aware that Riverview has a troubled reputation, but I generally had good luck dealing with people there. Things went well initially; Alex had a good clinician, and the staff communicated with me. For the first time, I felt hopeful of helping Alex.
Then, all of a sudden, things stalled. Riverview simply stopped communicating with me. A group home director agreed with me on the phone that Alex needed more help. He promised to write a letter in support, which I could use with both DCF and DMHAS. However, that letter never arrived, despite numerous pleading and prayerful reminders that I sent. It became obvious to me that everyone simply wanted to get rid of Alex, and she was not being helped; just as I had suspected in the past.
Riverview also violated our agreement, and harassed Gina mercilessly to take Alex back home; despite certain knowledge that Alex was violent, out of control, and unmanageable.
It is not a mystery. The issue, clearly and simply and plainly, was money; and nothing else. People want to help, but there is no money for child welfare. (There is, of course, plenty of money for DCF to spend in lobbying and other less productive ways).
Finally, I had had enough, and wrote directly to then-Commissioner Dunbar on 3/6/06.
Alex continued her AWOLs, and continued to get arrested (shoplifting, assault, etc.). She spent more time at York Correctional. I am not a bleeding-heart, but even Torquemada would have realized that prison was no place for this kid. But what was?
DCF now confirmed that its plan was to get Alex back to High Meadows, and then have DMHAS take over when she turned 18. However, DCF acknowledged that Alex did not want voluntary services. This, of course, made things difficult. Still, DMHAS seemed to offer hope.
I noted that Alex would be 18 on 2/28/07, and therefore there was no time to lose. Perhaps she needed a secure placement. No one seemed to be happy about this.
Sadly, I heard nothing. On 8/17/06, I wrote again to Commissioner Dunbar. I continued to push for a meeting with all parties, and a secure commitment for Alex.
This time, we got results.
The Principal Attorney at Waterbury DCF responded. She is a great lady, and was extremely generous in setting up a meeting at her facility, and ensuring parking spaces for all (which is no mean trick at Waterbury). She even arranged for a security guard to make it easy for the many attendees.
The meeting was set for 10/3/06 at Waterbury DCF. Yes, it takes that long to ensure that all players can attend: DCF, lawyers, clinicians, DHMAS, Child Advocate, etc.
Alex, meantime, was back in an adolescent psychiatric ward. Then she was transitioned to another hospital.
On 10/3/06, the big meeting happened. Briefly:
1. All agreed that something had to be done.
2. No one liked my idea of a secure facility for Alex. No one, however, gave a reason for opposing it. I suspect that money was the root cause. Gina herself was not happy about it, but reluctantly agreed that it might be necessary.
3. An excellent staffer at DMHAS was dubbed, more or less, to be responsible for getting a placement for Alex once she turned 18; which was coming up in less than 5 months. The placement would be in a facility in Brewster, NY. I personally also know this facility, and it does a fine job.
Sadly, things still did not work out. After the meeting, Alex was arrested again. The Brewster facility refused to take Alex, due to her behaviors. Alex returned to Niantic Prison and was later sent to a special school by court order. She was thrown out of that school for attacking other people, and went back to Niantic.
Gina was beside herself, and was also running out of money. (I have long since worked for free on this matter). I suggested to Gina that she file for conservatorship of Alex in the Probate Court. She would have to file about a month before Alex turned 18.
Gina agreed. She also said that she would call me if there were any more problems.
I heard nothing further. Then, on 4/30/07, while watching the TV evening news, I heard that Alex had been murdered in Hartford.
She was murdered in an insecure facility that acts as a sort of warehouse for disturbed adolescents and young adults. The staff there does its best, but they have no resources for keeping order. The killing was done by four young persons, apparently disturbed individuals, who were upset over a minor incident involving someone’s boyfriend.
I called Gina. She told me that after the 10/3/06 meeting, Alex kept running away, kept getting arrested, and nothing was helping. The proposed placement at Brewster simply did not happen.
Gina did go to the Cheshire Probate Court. A local lawyer had been appointed to represent Alex in a criminal matter, and subsequently was appointed as Alex’s Conservator. That lawyer wanted to assist in Alex’s transition to DMHAS, but was unsuccessful. She had called Gina, but strangely, had never called me.
Gina was distraught beyond belief. She wanted to sue the State; not for the money, but to wake the State up and alert people to what was actually happening with child welfare. I told her that this would be difficult, but put her in touch with two heavy-hitter litigators. They both interviewed her, and told her that it was impossible. Not only was sovereign immunity a problem, but proving culpable negligence on someone’s part was even worse.
There seems to be no possibility of changing the archaic sovereign immunity laws; at least, not within my lifetime.
Gina still wanted me to help. In an effort to find out what actually happened, I wrote to the Probate lawyer.
Unfortunately, the lawyer not only declined to speak to me, but made veiled threats that I was violating ethical rules. I was, and remain, puzzled.
I wrote to Clement of DCF. He also did not respond. By now, the story had been all over the local media, and obviously he was under orders from DCF lawyers not to respond. I understand that.
The fact remains: Alex’s death was preventable. Had Gina had money, she would have put Alex in a private secure facility herself. The State hemmed and hawed, and did nothing, although everyone was fully aware that Alex could not function in society.
In my mind, there is no doubt that Alex was abused as a child, which screwed her up mentally for life. Hardly a soul denies this, but nothing was done. Not only was Alex not placed in a secure facility, but she ended up in one of the most insecure inappropriate facilities in the State.
And worst of all: no one takes responsibility, and no one is offering to change the system.
DCF, an agency devoted to child protection but not child welfare, could not help effectively, since it determined that Alex was not “abused or neglected.” Of course, she was, and DCF knew this the day that Alex entered voluntary services. But then DCF would have had to spend untold dollars on Alex and put her in a secure facility; and no one wanted to do that.
Child protection, indeed.
But not for just another lower-middle-class kid who had been unlucky enough to have been sexually abused.
The only good news is that Alex’s death might help to galvanize the forces of child welfare in the State of Connecticut. Perhaps her death will not be in vain. Gina, however, might wait in vain forever if she expects any individual to actually take responsibility for this tragedy. But she tells me that she refuses to give up. Perhaps a courageous State Legislator will take up her cause, and the cause of child welfare in Connecticut.
In conclusion, no one single person was at fault for Alex’s tragic death; yet all were at fault. “Voluntary services” was hardly an answer to the problem.