Staffing shortages at CT's psychiatric hospital for children leave many in need of care, others in limbo

Photo of Julia Bergman
The Connecticut Department of Children and Families runs the Albert J. Solnit Center for Children in Middletown.

The Connecticut Department of Children and Families runs the Albert J. Solnit Center for Children in Middletown.

Cassandra Day / Hearst Connectic

Despite efforts by the Lamont administration to address staffing shortages that have plagued mental and behavioral health care in Connecticut, long wait lists and high demand for services persists, while beds at some of the most intensive care units go unfilled.  

SEIU District 1199, which represents more than 25,000 health care workers in Connecticut, said the situation is dire at the state’s residential psychiatric hospital for children in Middletown. 

At Solnit Children's Center, alone, there are 85 vacancies, mainly nursing jobs but also a handful of openings for social workers, rehab staff and psychiatrists.

Staffing shortages across the health care field, particularly in nursing and social work fields, have been a persistent problem in Connecticut and nationally even before the sharp increase in demand for mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only worsened the issue.  

It’s a problem that’s affecting a wide array of mental health services across the state from community-based programs to more acute hospital settings. At Solnit, staff members are caring for kids with complex behaviors who have the most acute mental health needs.

“It's been known for Albert J. Solnit Center to be the final stop, there's no place else for these children to go to get the level of care and services that they need,” said Darnell Ford, lead children’s services worker at Solnit and a SEIU member.

The Lamont administration has put in place several initiatives to help blunt the crisis here including providing tuition assistance to incentivize low-income and minority students to enter accelerated nursing and social work programs and allotting $35 million for workforce development initiatives to train workers including for highly specialized jobs at Solnit.

Contracts between SEIU workers and the state, which went into place in 2021, included pay increases for nurses and other job titles. The state is also offering incentives for hard to recruit positions.

"The safety, and quality of care of the children and youth at Solnit South, as well as the safety and well-being of the employees, remain the priority in all of our efforts,” Vannessa Dorantes, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, which oversees the facility, said in a written statement.

But SEIU said the administration’s efforts, so far, have not resulted in jobs being filled at the pace and level needed.

“The state is having a hard time retaining the few folks who were recently recruited because they’re not bringing people in the door fast enough,” Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199, said in a written statement.

Solnit’s South campus houses four coed hospital units and three female adolescent psychiatric residential treatment facility cottages. Two of the hospital units are not in use including one that has been offline throughout the pandemic except when used for quarantine space and another unit that has been offline since July due to staffing constraints. DCF said the units will reopen when staffing levels permit.

One of the cottages on the campus has not been operating as a patient living unit since the closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School’s girl's unit several years ago with no plans to reopen.

The psychiatric hospital is licensed for 50 beds, but its current total capacity is 42 beds, according to DCF. Of those, 20 are in use. At the psychiatric residential treatment facility cottages, capacity is 21 with the current census at 12.

“We will continue to manage the census to ensure the safety of children, youth and employees at Solnit South,” Commissioner Dorantes said. “Each and every opportunity to promote the outstanding work of our staff, the compassionate care they provide, and the daily impact they have on youth with complex behaviors will be lifted up as we attract new candidates for employment and work expeditiously to fill all remaining vacancies."

While staffing levels have kept many kids on the wait list, others are stuck in limbo in hospital settings as they await placements.

Namore Edwards, a political organizer with SEIU, said her daughter has been at Solnit for two years, most recently at one of the psychiatric residential treatment facilities on campus.

“That's absolutely unheard of. Usually, children stay there for like a maximum of six months,” Edwards said in an interview this week.

Edwards first spoke publicly about her daughter’s situation at a joint meeting earlier this year of the state legislature’s Public Health and Children Committees. Edwards detailed numerous barriers she encountered in trying to get her children access to services for trauma they had experienced.

Her daughter, now 13, has been at Solnit being treated in recent years. She said her daughter has been denied from residential treatment programs in Connecticut and across the country due to high level of care she needs. The latest recommendation is for her daughter to go a group home, which Edwards said she worries is not a suitable option based on her needs. 

"We just really need the services, we need the help, we need to open up all these empty buildings here in Connecticut," she said.