Kamala Harris asked Lamont to explore placing migrant youth in CT

Photo of Cassandra Day
The former Connecticut Juvenile Training School, at 1225 River Road in Middletown, was shut down in 2018.

The former Connecticut Juvenile Training School, at 1225 River Road in Middletown, was shut down in 2018.

Cassandra Day / Hearst Connecticut Media

MIDDLETOWN — A brief conversation between the governor and vice president in late March prompted a tour of the state’s former juvenile detention center as a possible location to relocate migrant children who entered the U.S. without permission.

The formerly state-run Connecticut Juvenile Training Facility, at 1225 River Road, closed in April 2018.

Vice President Kamala Harris walked up to Gov. Ned Lamont during her March 26 visit to New Haven and asked if there was a way for Connecticut to help the border situation, according to the governor’s Communications Director Max Reiss.

“‘We’ll see what we can do,’” Reiss said Lamont told her.

“The tour is a part of that,” said Reiss, who stressed late Wednesday there are no plans in place. “No decision has been made at all, and nothing is imminent. This is very much in the planning stages.”

Lamont said Thursday that the facility has “capacity for a few hundred kids depending on how the feds would want to arrange the cots and beds, so I think that’s a good starting number.

“It’s going to be really based upon quality of care as well,” Lamont said during a later afternoon press availability. “We’re going to be very strict about that and make sure that nobody cuts corners when it comes to these kids.

Asked theoretically how long the children would be here, Lamont said federal officials have said a few months. “They have to place these kids all over the country so it could take a little longer than that.”

Lamont said his chief of staff, Paul Mounds, will handle the negotiations with the federal government.

Mounds said nothing has been finalized and “we have not officially provided the federal government a facility within the state.

“As of right now, the governor has asked myself, Vanessa Dorantes, our commissioner of the Department of children and family, and Melissa McCaw, our secretary of OPM, to lead a process of due diligence as we go through this process based upon the request that was made to us and other states by the federal government,” Mounds said.

“As the governor stated, one of the most important things is quality of care, wrap around services.” he said. “While we have been provided a sense of the length of time ….we are preparing to identify a facility that could be utilized for a time period that would go beyond time period, that they asked for, out of our own due diligence and preparation.”

The Connecticut Mirror Thursday reported that state officials said the building’s history should not disqualify it from becoming a shelter for migrant children now housed in overcrowded facilities in Texas.

Department of Children and Families Commissioner said the visceral reaction some people have to using a former detention facility is based on how the building was used and does not reflect how it could be humanely repurposed, the Mirror reported.

“A building doesn’t care for kids,” Dorantes said. “People do.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said that as the Biden Administration seeks “to repair the results of the Trump Administration’s failed foreign policy and cruel, disastrous attempts to dismantle our immigration system.” the work includes “ensuring compassionate care of children who have traveled to the United States without immediate family members.”

“Governor Lamont is commendably responding to the Biden Administration’s request that states look for places where compassionate care can be provided. I hope that appropriate venues are available to meet this humanitarian need,” Blumenthal said in an email.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he has concerns about the current set up of the former training school.

“I went down to the border a few weeks ago and saw firsthand how the Biden administration is trying to fix the situation as quickly and humanely as possible. I wouldn’t want my own kids in those facilities for more than ten minutes, and there’s a shared understanding with the administration that we need to speed up processing of children who arrive at our border and ensure that this process does not add to the trauma they’ve already faced,” Murphy said in an email.

“CJTS is effectively a prison, but if the federal government wants to invest in renovations there’s certainly a possibility it could be used to house unaccompanied minors who are waiting to be settled with family,” he said.

Mayor Ben Florsheim was unaware the governor stopped by the site, he said Thursday. He has since been briefed on the situation, but was told by state officials they had very few details.

Last last year, Florsheim was at the facility with housing advocates investigating the feasibility of sheltering the city’s homeless population there.

“After I saw the building, and saw it was a prison, they all agreed this is not a building that can humanely [house people]. It’s not a building the homeless will come to. In many cases, they’d rather stay outside,” Florsheim said.

“If we were uncomfortable having 30 to 40 adults in there overnight, I’m having a hard time fathoming how we can fill it to capacity with children, and have it run by federal immigration authorities, and have it be humane,” he said.

“If this administration is going to move children from cages on the border to cages in New England, it’s not a solution,” the mayor said, acknowledging the issue is a complicated one. However, he’d like to know if any other places are under consideration.

“The symbolism of reopening a literal prison and using for that same purpose for migrant children is not an immigration policy, and we need to be talking about the facts,” Florsheim said.

CJTS is owned by the state, and officials are “well within their rights to visit it,” the mayor said. “What bothers me is the implication we would be housing children in an inhumane facility that closed because of it being inhumane,” the mayor said. “That’s troubling.”

The visit included Dorantes, Connecticut first lady Annie Lamont, Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management Melissa McCaw and Chief of Staff Paul Mounds Jr., Reiss said.

Lamont addressed the issue Thursday morning during a news conference at the state Department of Children and Families Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center North Campus in East Windsor, Reiss said. The governor was at the psychiatric residential treatment facility for youth ages 13 to 17 to highlight the business and entrepreneurship skills being taught to youths under the guidance of DCF.

The beleaguered Middletown facility was opened in 2001 by former Gov. John Rowland as a way to care for incarcerated male youths.

“Given the dire situation at the border with so many children escaping traumatic conditions in their home countries, I am not surprised that there is discussion of a facility in Connecticut,” said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3. “As chair of the committee that funds the unaccompanied children program, I believe it is our responsibility to step up, ensure they are safe, and give them the services they need,”

The congresswoman said she trusts Lamont to vet these facilities “and identify care providers appropriately to ensure these children are housed in facilities with access to services, and place these kids with sponsors, if possible.”

State Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said he was curious about the proposal, especially since he wasn’t aware of the visit. “We have a lot of questions and a lot we need to get answers for,” Lesser said.

That includes whether the onetime detention center is an appropriate venue. “We have to look at it very carefully,” he said.

Public feedback so far has been negative, Florsheim said. “I have a really hard time seeing how the site could be seen as suitable by a lot of people in town.”

Still, the mayor said, he appreciates the governor has since reached out to him. “There’s still not a lot of information coming down. We want to be part of the conversation and we’re going to keep talking about it.”

Reporter Julia Bergman contributed to this story.