Lawmakers demand answers about abuse at Harwinton youth home

The Connecticut Department of Children and Families confirmed several substantiated cases of physical and sexual abuse at the Harwinton home since 2021 – sometimes perpetrated by staff members.

John Craven

Oct 11, 2023, 10:58 PM

Updated 230 days ago

Share:

State lawmakers grilled child welfare authorities at a hearing Wednesday about multiple abuse cases – and a lawsuit – at a group home for young people in Harwinton.
"WE'VE GOT A PROBLEM HERE"
The Bridge Family Center in Harwinton is one of seven "STAR" (Short Term Assessment and Respite) homes across Connecticut. Each is a small residential facility meant to temporarily house troubled teenage girls, including victims of sex trafficking. Residents can leave for school and outpatient treatment visits.
STAR homes are meant to be a safe haven. But during the hearing, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families confirmed several substantiated cases of physical and sexual abuse at the Harwinton home since 2021 – sometimes perpetrated by staff members.
"The police were called to this home 16 times in one month," said state Rep. Gale Mastrofancesco (R-Wolcott). "I guess the question is when does somebody put their hand up and say, 'Whoa, we've got a problem here?'"
DCF leaders defended how they handled the cases. Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes noted that each time, the Bridge Family Center took corrective action, including removing staff members.
"Each of those incidences were responded to and investigated at the time that they occurred," Dorantes told the legislature's Committee on Children.
But lawmakers shot back, asking why DCF renewed the facility's contract last year.
"Was there any pause or consideration made not to renew this contract?" asked state Sen. Lisa Seminara (R-Avon).
Dorantes replied: "I don't believe so."
NEW LAWSUIT
The Bridge isn't just facing DCF scrutiny. In a new lawsuit, a 14-year-old former resident alleges she was physically assaulted and exposed to sexual abuse.
"The plaintiff will never enjoy the health and wellbeing she did prior to becoming a resident at the defendant's facility, and her ability to enjoy the full spectrum of life's activities has been impaired," the lawsuit reads.
Several months earlier, Plymouth police charged a man with paying another former resident for sex – although Bridge Center has noted he was not an employee and that residents have the freedom to leave the facility.
Because of the lawsuit, The Bridge Family Center director Margaret Hann did not appear in person. But she defended the home in a letter to lawmakers.
"We restructured our program," Hann wrote. "This included terminating several employees that proved to be a poor fit for the program, contracting with an outside organization who offers intensive on-site observation and training."
For now, no teens are living at the facility, according to a DCF spokesperson. The agency has issued a formal Plan of
Corrective Action on July 27. The state recently gave The Bridge Family Center an extra 60 days to comply due to hiring challenges at the facility.
BIGGER PROBLEM?
Connecticut Child Advocate Sarah Eagan told lawmakers this is just a symptom of a broken system. She noted that some youths stay in STAR homes, which are designed to be temporary, for up to 533 days.
"We're long past the 'canary in the coal mine,'" Eagan said. "There are probably parents sitting right here in front of me who have begged and pleaded and cried for care for their child."
Committee members from both parties pledged to look at legislative changes next session.
"It's very clear that we have to do work to make sure the kids are safe," said state Rep. Mary Welander (D-Orange)


More from News 12