Rossi set to resign to run juvenile services in R.I.

January 09, 1991|By John W. Freceand Eileen Canzian | John W. Freceand Eileen Canzian,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Linda D'Amario Rossi, who in three years transformed the way Maryland deals with juvenile delinquents by deinstitutionalizing hundreds of young offenders, announced plans to resign yesterday.

Ms. Rossi, secretary of juvenile services, said she had accepted an offer to take a similar job in her home state of Rhode Island.

"I want some stability in my life," explained Ms. Rossi, who before coming to Maryland in 1987 worked two years with the Texas Youth Commission and 13 years before that with Rhode Island's Department of Corrections and Department for Children and Families.

The job in Rhode Island depends on that state's legislature's passing a bill that will assure Ms. Rossi of a five-year appointment and the ability to buy back into the state's generous retirement program. She said she had been assured by newly elected Rhode Island Gov. Bruce Sundlun that the measure would be enacted within three weeks and said she could begin her new job next month.

If the measure is not enacted, Ms. Rossi said she intended to stay in her current job in Maryland.

She told Gov. William Donald Schaefer Friday of her plans to leave. "He wanted me to do what is best for me but reinforced the fact I still had a job with him in Maryland," she said.

Paul E. Schurick, the governor's press secretary, said the wooing of her by other states indicated she was "one of the nation's leading experts in juvenile services."

"She's on everybody's short list. Everyone would like to have her as their secretary," he said.

Ms. Rossi's policies centered on a belief that too many young people were locked away in grim reformatory wards and that many would be better off with their families or in group homes and other neighborhood-based programs.

To that end, she closed the controversial Montrose School in Northwest Baltimore County and sharply cut the population at the state's remaining reformatory, the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill. At the same time, she spurred the development of a variety of privately run rehabilitation programs for children. Her support of such private programs was a sore spot with many state workers within her agency, some of whom feared for their jobs.

She took over the Maryland program shortly after Governor Schaefer separated juvenile services from the health department and made it an independent agency. In 1989, she and the governor succeeded in convincing the legislature to elevate the agency to a Cabinet-level department.

"I think the biggest thing is, we are not the same organization we were four years ago," she said. "We look different. We have a lot of different programs. We treat kids as individuals and treat families individually based on their individual needs."

"I think the closing of Montrose was only symbolic of the basic philosophical shift: We don't put kids in beds in institutions; we put kids in programs," she said.

Her policies were praised by many juvenile justice experts nationally, but they often drew criticism in Maryland from people who argued she was going too far -- or not far enough. Guards at the Hickey School repeatedly accused her of trying to coddle their young charges, while some advocates for children complained that Ms. Rossi wasn't offering the school's residents enough counseling and training.

"Her own employees were always plotting behind her back," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "That was one of the biggest problems she had. They didn't want change."

Ms. Rossi's management style -- often compared to the "do-it-now" approach favored by Governor Schaefer -- drew complaints as well. Last year, state management analysts issued a scathing report saying her department was fraught with instability, weak planning and poor employee morale. The report suggested that Ms. Rossi ordered policy changes without adequately explaining them to her workers or training the workers to carry them out.

But Mr. Schaefer remained a steadfast supporter. He greeted the critical management report by attacking the analysts who wrote it, accusing them of being "grossly unfair" to Ms. Rossi and faulting her for problems that predated her tenure.

Many legislators also liked the new direction she took.

"What I liked about her was her courage," said state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, D-Baltimore County. "She wasn't afraid to do these things."

Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, said he wished she had moved faster to deal with problems at the Hickey School but otherwise supported Ms. Rossi's policies. He said it would be "a tremendous mistake" if they were not continued by whoever was named to succeed her.

"We still have problems with juvenile services, no doubt about it," he said. "But she has deinstitutionalized up to 700 kids out there at Montrose. Knock on wood, but we haven't had a problem with those kids."

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