Unchain Our Children

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By Nikki A. Sambitsky

Connecticut would join the growing list of states moving away from the routine restraint of juvenile offenders, given the success of legislation being pushed by two state lawmakers and child advocacy groups. Representatives Bruce Morris and Toni Walker, in their bills pending before the General Assembly, call for limiting the shackling of children during juvenile court proceedings because the practice is demeaning and hinders rehabilitation efforts.

“When these kids are shackled like adults, it’s inappropriate,” says Morris, who serves as chairman on The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

Prior to the pending bills, policy regarding shackling of youth has been vague and inconsistently followed, leading to 75 percent of all juveniles still appearing in some form of restraint regardless of safety risk. If passed, as of July 1st of this year, restraints such as handcuffs, chains, irons or straitjackets may not be used on a child during a court proceeding and must be removed before the child appears in court. A child will only remain bound if the use of restraints is found to be necessary through a brief hearing to ensure the safety of the public.

Marisa Halm, an attorney and Director of TeamChild Juvenile Justice Project with the Center for Children’s Advocacy, encouraged the Representatives to introduce the bills. “This is an issue that…the public defenders here in Connecticut have been trying to fix for some time. This year we decided to pick it up.”

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Milagros Montalvo-Stewart voices her support of pending legislation: “[Shackling] sends a strong message that, ‘Okay, you’ve already started the process of being a prisoner, so this is just the beginning; but odds are that this won’t be the last time; this will become familiar.’” Like Montalvo-Stewart, experts agree that shackling minors who have already experienced trauma may aggravate symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Center along with health experts also report that shackles restrict and inhibit communication with attorneys during or before hearings and prevent youth from participating actively in their own defense, thus impeding self-regulation. Speech therapists stated within the report that youth restrained during proceedings are less likely to understand or remember the proceedings and more likely to err in attempting to follow instructions given when compared to unshackled youth, leading to increased court involvement and incarceration.

Jurisdictions such as Washington and Massachusetts have already eliminated the routine shackling of juveniles with handcuffs, leg irons, and belly chains. Florida limited such practices in 2006 and restraints are now rarely used. A policy report released five years after the legislation by the Law Offices of the Public Defender in Florida documented that more than 20,000 unrestrained, detained children successfully appeared in court without harming anyone or fleeing the premises.

Morris remains hopeful that the bills will pass and enter into law as conversations with the Chief Court Administrator and the Chief Justice have been positive and both have shown support of the proposed bills, meaning the youth of Connecticut can look forward to brighter futures.

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