Trans people are patriarchy’s constitutional crisis. Our very existence presents the gender order with an unfixable problem that is impossible to discipline back into its neat boundaries, save through the most extreme of actions.
The Connecticut State Department of Children and Familes (DCF) has created just such a crisis in the case of Jane Doe, the 16 year old trans Latina who was bounced from the DCF system into prison without charges or trial because of alleged violence. On July 13, she was quietly moved to a boy’s facility and returned to a solitary confinement situation because she had allegedly become violent again at the Pueblo Girls’ Detention Facility in Connecticut, while her transfer to a girls’ treatment centre in Massachusetts was pending. Her lawyer, Aaron Romano, believes that by issuing a press release about the allegations and refusing to talk to Doe’s representatives, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz is attempting “litigation in the press,” which ACLU attorney Chase Strangio describes as “concerning on multiple levels.” It is hard to disagree with that assessment.
The layers of misinformation at work here are breathtaking. Even journalists sympathetic to Jane Doe’s case can barely make heads or tails of the DCF’s statements. According to Strangio, who has worked diligently on the case, Jane Doe was never sent to the safer, less prison-like Massachusetts facility in spite of a press release from the DCF claiming she had been accepted there, sending her instead to the Pueblo detention center. The new press release from the DCF attempts to use allegations of violence against Jane Doe to justify transferring her from Pueblo to solitary confinement in a boys’ facility, but as Strangio notes, “in the highly surveilled and violent structure of secure facilities, there are no shortage of confrontations.”
The New Haven Register published a sober-minded editorial on the subject this week arguing that the agency is disingenuously using its public statements to imply that Doe is uniquely violent, thus justifying the inhumane treatment she is receiving from the state. But, The Register argues, ”It’s not because of her symptoms — plenty of kids who get bounced around among foster homes and institutions lash out and assault others. It’s because they don’t know what to do with, or don’t understand, or don’t want to go out of their way to help, a transgender child.”
They conclude with a pointed question: “State law in Connecticut bans discrimination against transgender people. Why are we allowing a state agency to violate that law?”
Violent children are not an unusual phenomenon in state-run childcare, which, too often, exists at a terrifying nexus of social crises. The wages of mass impoverishment, of parental abuse writ large and small, of incarceration, and of sex trafficking, manifest in generations of lost children that are cast adrift with neither succor nor care. The apparatus of state run foster care was meant to be a humane system of last resort for those left behind, providing a civilized alternative to the warehousing of children in creaking orphanages and poorhouses. As Jane Doe is demonstrating, however, we have too often simply substituted Dickensian punishments with more Foucauldian ones. Our world’s ugliest impulses leave their scars on our children very early on, and the situation improves only marginally (if at all) under the care of the state, which often recapitulates institutional violence in a buttoned-down, officialized form. Jane Doe is no exception to this, and the allegations of abuse she has suffered under DCF’s care have been taken nowhere near as seriously as allegations of her own violence.
Certainly, no officials from DCF have been incarcerated without trial. Nor should they be; that isn’t how due process works. But this is a consideration that was denied to Jane Doe from the very start of this whole mess and there has been no meaningful reckoning here. So far as most outside observers are concerned, Jane Doe’s time in DCF custody is a formless void, impenetrable to light and illuminated only by flickering details from Jane Doe when she gets a message to the outside world. Unsurprisingly, to hear Commissioner Katz tell it, the DCF is rather like a bystanding punching bag that Jane Doe has irrationally and inexplicably whaled on. Blameless, and curiously inert. No great detail has been given of their policies, much less what day to day life is like for the children in the state’s care.
This is not to cast aspersions on the thankless labour of Connecticut’s army of social workers. But most MSWs will tell you that they too are caught between the myriad vises of state power and violence when trying their damnedest to do good in the world, hamstrung by procedure and a chronic lack of resources, as well as by an increasingly carceral system that treats children as lost causes. The Pueblo Detention Centre itself was a focus of controversy in Connecticut when it was built recently precisely because it portended a more prison-like direction for DCF, following a spike in the incarceration of young boys in the state. It is worth noting that, when confronted with questions by state lawmakers about the need for Pueblo several months earlier, Commissioner Katz cited Jane Doe as a prime example of the kind of ‘violent offender’ the facility would hold.
The same facility where Jane Doe was snuck into under cover of darkness when she was meant to go to Massachusetts, and the same one she has now been kicked out of in favor of a boys’ detention center.
There are a lot of stories yet to be told in Jane Doe’s case, and there is a reason that the Justice4Jane action page has listed, as one of its demands: “Launch an independent investigation into CT DCF to uncover ALL the abuses permitted and perpetrated against children in their care.” There is growing suspicion that Jane Doe is but the tip of the iceberg here, and discrediting her may also have the fully intended knock-on effect of intimidating other children, of all genders and backgrounds, who may wish to speak out against DCF abuse.
Not only is Jane Doe a constitutional crisis in terms of DCF’s gender policies, but it’s very possible that Commissioner Katz is availing herself of that confusion in order to make an object lesson out of her.
“[Commissioner Katz is] trying to demonize Jane again to avoid accountability for the abuse DCF perpetrated against her,” says IV, one of the Justice4Jane organizers. ”As long as Jane keeps being portrayed as a threat to everyone around her, [as] an uncontrollable monster, her affidavit will mean nothing and the abuses of Jane will be secondary to whatever Katz claims about Jane’s behavior.”
IV, who is also an activist with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, tells Feministing that Jane Doe’s lawyers have been in to see her but “she is very unhappy and feels unsafe.”
To end where we began, Strangio observes that “as a trans girl of color, Jane continues to be targeted and cast as a monster even as she continues to be victimized by this system that is set-up to limit her chances at survival.” Jane Doe’s struggle to even have her most basic of rights protected in the DCF, which should already be enshrined as a matter of law in Connecticut, points to yet larger issues.
There are a number of unanswered questions that rise above the already terrifying legal imbroglio here: what is Jane Doe’s recourse if she feels she has been treated unfairly? Why is the state of Connecticut allowed to flout its own much-touted gender identity law? Why is Jane Doe’s right to a speedy and fair trial being repeatedly denied here? Why is there next to no transparency about the DCF’s role in Jane Doe’s life over the last several years, and how it came to its conclusions about her? What does Jane Doe’s case reveal not just about the treatment of trans kids in custody, but of all children who are wards of the state?
Not long ago, I wrote that Jane Doe was being judged harshly because she was constructed as an imperfect victim by the DCF, following a well-worn pattern of dehumanization often employed against women, people of color, and sexual minorities. By reincarcerating Jane Doe this week, and housing her in a facility for parolee boys, the DCF is again trying to send the public signal that Jane Doe deserves her fate. This is made crystal clear by Commissioner Katz’s tendency to try Doe by press release, hurling unsubstantiated accusations at her that single her out and defame her character. Even if they are true, a press release is neither a trial, nor an adequate substitute for constitutional protection.
But it is a way of trying to convince the public to avert their gaze from Jane Doe and at last let her disappear into the black hole that the DCF has created for her.
Don’t let them get away with it.