The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services is investigating reports that female residents at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School have been handcuffed to their cots, left in seclusion for up to five days and strip-searched by male guards.
Carol Hyman, a spokeswoman for the department, confirmed yesterday that state officials are investigating Hickey as a result of a Sept. 26 incident in which two University of Maryland law students saw a girl lying beneath a blanket in an otherwise bare cell at the school in Cub Hill.
The two law students, who represent Hickey residents through the university's clinical-law program, then spoke with two other girls in Hickey's female unit. The girls' claims about their treatment persuaded the students and attorney Susan Leviton to go to the DJS administration.
"We take something like this seriously and we are investigating," Hyman said. "Right now, because I don't have anything definitive, that's all I can say."
While Leviton and one of the students involved, Denise Oakes, are pleased with DJS' prompt action, they say they now want all female residents removed from Hickey, a proposal that Juvenile Services Secretary Linda D'Amario Rossi does not find feasible.
"Her feeling is that there is a need for a state-operated, semisecure program, and there is not a community-based program that is right for these girls," Hyman said. "She doesn't want to ship them out of state. There is a place for them at the Hickey School."
Hickey, the state's only detention facility for juvenile offenders, has 343 boys and 17 girls. It can house up to 20 female residents at a time in Unit 2, a cottage in the part of Hickey that is outside the secured, fenced area.
But security in the so-called non-secure part of Hickey is strict, nevertheless. It apparently was a breach in Hickey's routine that enabled the law students to see the girls in their cells, prompting the investigation.
Denise Oakes, a third-year law student, said she had gone to Hickey Sept. 26 to meet with a client, a 17-year-old who faces several assault-related charges. Normally, they would have met in an anteroom in the girls' cottage.
But on this visit, Oakes said, she and another student were allowed to pass through the living area into the corridor of cells.
"One room was completely bare, just concrete, no rugs or anything like that, and there was a girl lying on the floor under a blanket," Oakes said. "The other girls told us she had been there since the night before."
The girl in the bare cell, who appeared to be sleeping when Oakes peered through the small mesh window of the cell door, was handcuffed, two other girls told the law students. The blanket covered her hands, however, so the students were unable to verify that.
The girls contended they also had been handcuffed to their beds various times, Oakes said.
"The girls had scars, bruises and fairly deep cuts on their arms" that they said had been left by handcuffs, Oakes said. "But the one thing that was pretty shocking to us was to have that girl lying there."
The girls also complained that they had been confined to their rooms for up to three days, with guards refusing to let them out even for bathroom breaks, Oakes said. Furthermore, she said, a check of a log book showed that some girls had been placed in seclusion for up to five days, which apparently would be at odds with Rossi's stated guidelines for Hickey.
Oakes said she also was disturbed by reports that male security guards sometimes stripped the girls for security reasons, then placed them in paper gowns.
Leviton, president of Advocates of Children and Youth Inc., said the list of allegations raises old questions about whether Hickey is working.
"It really brings up that Hickey is not doing what it's supposed to do. Hickey, if you're going to fix it, is going to take many, many dollars and it's not clear it's fixable," she said. "I don't think they should have girls out there because they're handling them very badly."