Juvenile Services' takes private route for public programs

December 14, 1990|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

Since Linda D'Amario Rossi came to Maryland to run the Department of Juvenile Services less than four years ago, she has quietly pursued a controversial path -- contracting out programs to private companies.

Under Rossi, the department has added eight such alternative programs, ranging from the community-based Choice in South Baltimore to Youth Challenge, a residential-but-unlocked camp in Charles County. They provide an array of services tailored to meet the increasingly diverse needs of Maryland's juveniles, from community-based treatment to residential psychiatric care.

Proponents say these programs are cost-effective and preferable to traditional reformatories. So why isn't the department bragging about them? "I'll say this gingerly," Rossi replied. "Unions."

The number of state employees in Rossi's department has declined sharply, even as the number of youths being served has climbed. This year alone the figure is 23 percent above the number of youths projected in the agency's budget.

Yet by Rossi's estimate, her agency gave up about 257 state positions when the Montrose School closed in 1988, and recycled only 115 of those through other assignments -- for a net loss of 142 jobs during her tenure.

Meanwhile, her success with private programs has prompted tentative discussion about what would be the biggest privatization project of all -- letting a private contractor run the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, the Baltimore County facility that houses the state's toughest juvenile offenders.

"I don't know if [using the private sector] saves money, but the costs don't go up as rapidly," Rossi said in a recent interview. "This isn't good, but it's a fact. There's a flexibility associated with the private sector."

Not surprisingly, union officials describe their relationship with the secretary, who once belonged to a social workers union in Rhode Island, as "strained."

"We strongly oppose the methods they have been using," said Jessie McNair, president of AFSCME Local 3167, which represents almost 800 DJS employees. McNair said he believes state employees are overworked at Hickey because of limited staffing there.

And Bill Bolander, executive director of AFSCME Council 92, which encompasses the local, said: "We're at the point of frustration with Miss Rossi. . . . You wish people would remember where they came from."

Bolander and McNair said they have heard rumors about taking Hickey private, but have not discussed those rumors with the department. Rossi said the plan is not being "aggressively pursued," but is under consideration.

The privatization of Juvenile Services -- which Rossi describes as her effort to "balance" the agency -- has gone hand-in-hand with a move away from placing juveniles in traditional institutions.

In fiscal year 1986, Rossi points out, more than 500 youths were in residential training schools. Hickey and Montrose, the state's two training schools, along with the state's detention camps, accounted for 67 percent of the department's budget.

Now, Montrose is closed and there are only 236 youths at Hickey. That population, combined with the youths in detention camps, accounts for only 40 percent of the budget.

At the same time, Maryland's national ranking for the number of juveniles in training schools has changed greatly. In 1982, the state was 16th highest for per-capita number of juveniles in training schools. Today, it is 36th, according to the San Francisco-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

"There hasn't been any major state that has made as dramatic a change," said Barry Krisberg, president of the council.

There is a price to this success, Rossi said. Hickey's youths are now the most extreme cases in the system -- young people with an array of problems. She calls it the "residue population" and said it is a large part of the reason the department requested $600,000 last year to improve security at the school.

This population also will make it difficult to find a private provider, Rossi said. Most private contractors prefer to stipulate the kind of population they will accept. That's the case with all the private programs implemented under Rossi.

"Intake cannot be controlled at a training school," she said.

The difficulty in controlling intake is one reason there are only two such privately run training schools nationwide, in Florida and Tennessee.

But state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Balto. Co., in whose district Hickey lies, says he believes there could be a "partial" privatization at the training school: A contractor could run the program "outside the fence," he said, while the state would take care of the juveniles confined within the security gates.

The contractor Bromwell favors is Cosimo "Sam" Ferrainola, whose Glen Mills School in Concordville, Pa., has 600 youths, more than 100 from Maryland. Ferrainola's school has lower per-diem costs and a better recidivism rate than most facilities.

But Glen Mills also has strict standards for acceptance: no arsonists, no emotionally disturbed youths, no one with severe learning disabilities or substance abuse problems. The state, Rossi says, does not have the luxury of regulating which students it will accept.

She rejected Bromwell's idea of a hybrid training school, but said there still might be a contractor willing to tackle the state's

toughest youths.

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