SOUTHINGTON – Town officials are calling upon The Department of Children and Families to demand better supervision of young girls in crisis living at the Bridge Family Center after years of escalating complaints.
The center, located at 96 Birchcrest Drive, acts as a home for teenage girls who had to be removed from traumatic family situations. However, since it was established nine years ago, town leaders have reported a high number of complaints of teens running away and going into neighbor’s yards.
“The police have had to respond more and more frequently,” said Town Manager Garry Brumback. “We want DCF to work with the folks who run the home; we want them to be better neighbors. Right now, they’re not handling their clients in an appropriate manner. When they first came in, they presented themselves as a well-run group that would be virtually transparent to their neighbors. The problem is they have been anything but. There have been a lot of runaways.”
Brumback said that town officials do not blame the young girls at the home.
“It’s not their fault; this is about the professionals who run the operation,” said Brumback. “If we have to go to the head of DCF, then we are prepared to do that.”
At the most recent town council meeting, councilors Victoria Triano and Dawn Miceli were appointed to the heads of a task force to handle the situation. Triano said that the entire council is united behind this issue.
“This issue has just gotten worse and worse,” said Triano. “This operation falls directly on the backs of DCF and their contractor, Winifred House. The supervision of these young girls is not adequate, and we are very serious about fixing this. Girls come to this shelter for a short period of time after they are pulled out of difficult home situations. These are young teens who are receiving no therapeutic intervention, as far as I can tell. They are in states where they are vulnerable physically and emotionally and so them running away is understandable. The staff response is not. I have learned of an incident where there were three runaways, and they waited for an hour to call it in. The police have received an enormous number of calls, which they have to respond to - it is not an option. The fact that these calls keep stacking up and taking the officers away from everything else that is stacking up is horrendous.”
Triano echoed Brumback’s sentiment that the Bridge Family Center has “not been a neighborly company.”
“When they first came here they said that these girls would be pleasant neighbors and help out with yard work - that has all gone out the window,” said Triano. “I expect DCF to implement new criteria, and if Winifred House can’t meet that criteria, then I expect their contract to be ended. We have talked to the neighbors. We have spoken with our legislators; this needs to be addressed if we have to go to the Commissioner to do it. The situation now is chaos.”
Mike Rulnick, director of residential services at the Bridge Family Center, said that calls are placed when children go AWOL. Even if a fine system is put into place, he said the center will “never hesitate” to do what it needs to do to keep children safe.
“We have to call in certain things based on a variety of factors, the majority of which are AWOLs leaving the house without permission,” he said. “We are required to call an hour after someone goes missing. We don’t put hands on kids to restrain them, we just try to convince them to stay. They are with us because they were in a situation where they were abused or neglected, with the idea that they will eventually go into a foster home after us. These are Connecticut’s children; they deserve to have a safe place to live, and they shouldn’t be put into an institution.”
Rulnick said that the center is a nice facility and is maintained well. He added that Bridge Family Center has listened to neighbors’ feedback and that the center does want to be a good neighbor.
“The neighbors didn’t like the number of police cars that were coming to the house, so we’ve gone to them to make reports, and we then bring the children to them when they’re found,” he said. “They didn’t want so many of our staff cars in the neighborhood so we have been meeting monthly at the Southington YMCA instead. We have also told staff to drive slower when coming into the neighborhood. We have installed more cameras outside of the house at the police’s suggestion. We have tremendous respect for the Southington Police Department. They are a fantastic, top notch, department.”
Miceli, meanwhile, said that she was informed Friday by Town Attorney Mark Sciota that New Britain has implemented an ordinance where they can fine a contractor for excessive calls to police. A proposal to implement a similar measure in Southington will be discussed at Monday’s meeting.
“Perhaps if the contractor is fined for an exorbitant number of calls, they will step up the training of their staff,” said Miceli. “Most of the neighbors have problems with the staff.”
Miceli noted that she lives in a neighborhood where there is a group home. There were problems with the first contractor, but the second contractor resolved most of the issues.
“The state came up with this template for putting these group homes into neighborhoods with the idea that people would feel like they are part of the community,” said Miceli. “We have many group homes in Southington, some of which are run very well and others which are not. The problem is that Birchcrest Drive home is a temporary home - the gals aren’t there long enough to develop a bond with the community. These transient group homes are not a good fit, and this needs to be fought with the state legislature.”
Miceli said that town staff has already sent out a letter to the Commissioner of DCF and that she expects a response.
“We pay for DCF with our tax dollars, so they had better be willing to come out and meet with us,” she said. “This has gone on for a decade. They had their chance to fix it, and now the municipality has had to step in.”
Brian M. Johnson can be reached at 860-973-1806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.