An answer in the wilderness for CT teens in crisis

Photo of Julia Bergman
Gov. Ned Lamont made a visit last week to The Wilderness School, a program run by the state Department of Children and Families in East Hartland to help youths who are either in the criminal justice system or have suffered trauma that leaves them at risk. Lamont is pictured with a 17-year-old from the Hartford area in gathering area at the outdoor school.

Gov. Ned Lamont made a visit last week to The Wilderness School, a program run by the state Department of Children and Families in East Hartland to help youths who are either in the criminal justice system or have suffered trauma that leaves them at risk. Lamont is pictured with a 17-year-old from the Hartford area in gathering area at the outdoor school.

Julia Bergman /Hearst Connecticut Media /

As Gov. Ned Lamont walked along the sprawling, wooded campus of The Wilderness School, a state program for at-risk adolescents focused on outdoor immersion, he spoke with a 17-year-old whose introduction to the school was through a 20-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in 2019.

It was a quiet visit on a sunny, fall day last week at a “school” unlike others, in East Hartland, a town of about 2,000 people less than five miles from the Massachusetts line, with the leaves just starting to turn colors.

“You ever done anything like that before?” the governor asked “Z,” whose name is not being reported for security reasons.

“No,” Z said.

“You ever want to do it again?” Lamont asked.

“Yes, I would love to.”

The governor smiled, “I like that.”

For Lamont and other administration officials, the tour was designed to highlight what tools the state has outside of the criminal justice system to address juvenile crime. The Wilderness School, under the purview of the state Department of Children and Families, is key to helping troubled youth get back on track.

The visit, and Lamont’s discussion around it, comes as Republicans are ratcheting up claims that the state is less safe under his watch, with what they say is a spike in youth crime. The GOP is making no secret that crime will be an issue in the 2022 campaign, in which Lamont is expected to seek re-election.

“'Lock ‘em up and throw away the key' doesn’t work in Alabama or Mississippi,” Lamont said, as the crime rates and recidivism rates are higher there than in Connecticut. “I think everybody knows you need a variety of different responses for that first time offender, that kid who’s done a couple of stupid things, that kid who has a family situation that makes life impossible.”

Z said growing he was surrounded by abuse growing up, which led him to act out later on.

“We had a lot of drug abuse and physical abuse, pretty much everything,” he said in an interview during the visit. “It just wasn’t a very stable home for me and my other six siblings.”

‘I was angry with what’s been going on’

Eventually, Z and his siblings ended up in foster care. But the trauma stuck with Z, a tall, outgoing Hispanic teen from the Hartford area who loves to play basketball. After he got caught selling “controlled substances” at school, he was referred to a local juvenile review board, a diversionary program designed to help local police departments manage juvenile offenders.

“I was one of those kids who would just try to pick fights with anybody because I was angry with what’s been going on,” he said. “Now, I keep to myself or I talk to somebody about it.”

The Wilderness School is modeled off the popular Outward Bound program where teens partake in challenging hiking, backpacking, and canoeing excursions that teach them about team building and self confidence. The programs range from one to 20 days for the teen participants, who face a range of challenges including trauma, school and legal issues, and learning disabilities.

“You have them out and about on their expedition, carrying backpacks, working together, sharing jobs, working through their struggles and problems,” said Aaron Wiebe, program director. “They collect a series of tangible experiences that give them a message about what they’re capable of and who they are.”

The battle over crime

Away from this quiet corner of the state, the partisan debate on crime wages on with the GOP seizing on news headlines of car thefts, allegedly committed by teens, some of them violent, repeat offenders, and calling for stiffer penalties.

The governor, who toured The Wilderness School with DCF Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes and Katie Dykes, commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, favors a more holistic approach that involves law enforcement and agencies like DCF.

“Every behavior needs a response. There’s got to be accountability. But you want the accountability to be appropriate,” Lamont said during his hour-long visit to the Wilderness School’s campus.

“In many cases, it’s counselors and social workers and job training and opportunity,” he said. “In some cases, where you have criminal behavior and repeat offenders, you need a lot more severe accountability and wilderness can handle a wide range of different needs.”

On Wednesday, Republican senators plan to convene a press conference outside the state Capitol to unveil their plan to address what they call “a surge in violent crime across Connecticut.”

The FBI’s annual crime statistics show Connecticut had one of the lowest violent crime rates in the country last year. The state’s overall violent crime rate per 100,000 people in 2020 was 181.6, down from 184.6 in 2019.

“We’re coming out of a-year-and-a half of quarantine, look what that’s done to different people’s psyche,” Lamont said last week. “It’s manifested all over the place.”

“We’re coming up with the right response. To some, maybe on the Republican side, some of that is law and order, some of that is more community policing, some of that is more judges, some of that is more group detention facilities,” he said. “But don’t let that group impact those kids who otherwise had some missteps, and there are other, better responses to help get them back on track.”

Adolescent development in the woods

Each year, about 80 to 100 teens participate in the wilderness programs, which run year-round but are most active in the summer. Roughly half of the participants are referred by DCF.

Dorantes said some of the participants have already been involved in the criminal justice system or could be prone to getting in trouble “so it’s important to disrupt by coming out here, really having to tune in to problem solving, team building.”

Schools, youth service bureaus, the juvenile court, mental health clinics, and private counselors also provide referrals. But Wiebe said the teens must also “buy-in” and decide on their own they want to take part in the program — or else it won’t work.

“Whatever the goals are. Whatever the kid needs to work on is going to come up in five days or 20 days, whether it’s making friends, whether it’s dealing with frustration, whether it’s follow-through, whether it’s personal responsibility,” he said. “A lot of that is just adolescent development so it supports that.”

Z had been in counseling and in-home therapy for about a year when a DCF counselor mentioned The Wilderness School to him and his former foster mom, who adopted him several years ago.

“I said I would love to do it. I pictured it as camping, and I love to go camping,” he said, but had never been in the wilderness before.

‘Any job you want’

In the summer of 2019, Z joined other teens on a 20-day expedition that including hiking the Appalachian Trail. Immersed in nature, away from the real world, with other teens who’ve had similar experiences, Z said he felt safe to talk about his trauma.

“It was like we already knew each other for a very long time even though we just met,” he said.

At one point during the governor’s tour, which Z was invited to attend as a success story of the program, Lamont mentioned he did an Outward Bound trip growing up.

“I thought five days was plenty,” he said.

“Imagine doing it 20 days” Z said to laughs

“That’s 15 days too long,” Lamont quipped.

At the end of the 20-day program, the participants are recognized at a graduation ceremony attended by their families and those who referred them. In many cases, they’re invited back to do follow-up programs. This summer, Z came back to do a five day hiking expedition.

“When people were having hard time, I tried to help them de-escalate the situation so they wouldn’t feel like doing something they regretted,” he said.

A junior in high school, Z wants to go to the University of Connecticut to play basketball and study mechanical engineering.

“I guarantee if you’re an engineer at UConn,” Lamont said, “you can have any job you want.”