When I last wrote about Jane Doe, I condemned the Connecticut State Department of Children and Families (DCF) for waging a PR war on her back, trying her through press-releases rather than in a fairly adjudicated court of law. Last week, the Connecticut State Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) formally agreed. In the words of a New Haven Register report,
Child Advocate Sarah Eagan’s office called the July 13 announcement by the Department of Children and Families about the fight the previous day involving the 16-year-old, identified as Jane Doe, and four other girls a “public shaming.”
Eagan’s statement is forthright in its analysis of Jane Doe’s situation and the larger carceral mess in which both she and the state find themselves in. She condemns the DCF for its failure to live up to what she calls its “parental” role for Jane, noting with restraint that “DCF’s rush to publicize a fraction of an incident is difficult to reconcile with [this role],” and that the much-publicized fight that saw Doe transferred to isolated confinement in a boy’s facility did not result in transfers for any of the other three girls involved in the incidents in question. Eagan notes that “[o]ne of the girls was restrained on five separate occasions during the same night—including being placed in hand cuffs and prone restraint–long after the initial incident had ended.”
As a number of heartless online comments reveal, the scapegoating of Jane Doe has been successful in some quarters, with people talking about her as if she is a singular monster in an otherwise idyllic environment. It is a neat trick of rhetoric that allows one’s thoughts to glide right by the lack of a trial or any meaningful form of due process, while also seducing attention away from deeper systemic problems at the DCF.
But the OCA knows better, at least, being able to appraise mountains of records and the wealth of experience brought by the state’s social workers. The incredulity in Eagan’s statement is a testament to how utterly disingenuous the DCF has been in its portrayal of Doe as uniquely monstrous.
Eagan’s statement goes a step further, however. She does not, it is worth noting, take the easy out of saying that all violent children in the system are monsters, but rather argues that their environment and their circumstances structure this behavior, singling out the facility where Doe had her recent fight for special criticism. After describing the litany of traumas and disruptions many DCF children have shared, she goes on to say:
These children’s stories and even their incident reports are heartbreaking depictions of desperate behavior and desperate need. The frequency and intensity of disruptive, assaultive conduct and the frequent use of restraint at [Pueblo] raises significant questions regarding the therapeutic nature of this correctional program and the ability of the facility to assess and address the significant mental health needs of these children.
By keeping the humanity of the most troubled boys and girls in DCF care well in mind, Eagan does what far too many have refused to do: acknowledge that there is a very serious problem with how Connecticut is taking care of its warded children.
In the “Policy Recommendations” section of the statement, the OCA says plainly:
There is little evidence that taking youth with challenging behaviors and placing them in correctional confinement, either alone or with other similar youth, has positive, long-term benefit for the child or the community.
Amid growing discontent with the state of prisons in this country—and the juvenile justice system is indisputably a part of our carceral landscape—this statement should be viewed as farsighted one that recognizes the true implications of this case.
With Jane Doe, I and others have rallied around an individual whose story resonates with so many other trans women of color. But it is vital to remember that the problem neither began nor ends with her. Connecticut, like much of the rest of the country, has watched as its prison system rotted from the corrosion of inhumanity and heartless power run out of control.
Commissioner Joette Katz, who has repeatedly attempted to defend her actions regarding Jane Doe, has been lambasted as transmisogynist and hateful—not without reason; the writing is on the prison wall. But it would be equally true to characterize her and many other wardens as motivated by a growing fear: the crisis in US prisons is spiraling violently out of control. The scapegoating of Doe was convenient—she’s a brown trans girl who seemed like she couldn’t fight back, turning the public on her should have been easy. In the process, she could get put away, and the DCF could purchase for itself a few more months or years to deal with its metastasizing youth crisis. Perhaps enough time to build another prison, or expand an existing one.
I have no trouble admitting that these are only speculations. Though they may seem tendentious, it is hardly unreasonable to suggest that those who administer prisons are increasingly running out of options and may act impetuously as a result. We must, at last, confront the long-existing reality that alternatives to incarceration are very badly needed, and that we must step off the cycle of violence that sees violent conditions create violent people who are then used to justify more institutional violence.
Jane Doe must walk free. She deserves her prom, she deserves her happy home, she deserves the free air. And so does every other child in DCF’s care.
I cannot improve on the OCA statement’s concluding remarks:
The repeated and misleading stories about Jane Doe as an anomaly in our juvenile services system must not obscure the opportunity and obligation presented to engage in a rigorous and public assessment of what it is we can accomplish for the most vulnerable and challenging of our youth; how do we help them and us; where do we go from here? There are answers, and the state, the advocates, and the community must take this opportunity for change.
But will we take that opportunity?