Caseworker pays price for talking of teen who died


March 12, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Last Monday, Lou Kohlman did a remarkable thing: He talked openly about a 17-year-old East Baltimore kid who committed suicide and the Baltimore office of the Department of Juvenile Services, which never got around to helping him while he was alive.

Last Tuesday, the Department of Juvenile Services also did a remarkable thing: It suspended Lou Kohlman without pay for three days.

"What I told you was the truth," Kohlman, a 16-year veteran Juvenile Services caseworker, said yesterday about his remarks of last week, which appeared here.

"It was insubordination," said Juvenile Services public relations person Diane Hutchins. "He failed to follow policy regarding contacts with the media."

In other words, Kohlman didn't go through channels. When he was telephoned about a kid who'd burned himself out sniffing paint and glue and then hanged himself, Kohlman spoke openly instead of directing any questions to his department's public relations person.

What would the public relations person have done?

A) At best, contact Kohlman for a first-hand explanation of the case and then relate Kohlman's own words to a reporter.

B) Worse, call Kohlman for an explanation and then call high-level bureaucrats in the state agency to put the proper "spin" on the story.

C) Worse yet, refuse any comment.

Dealing strictly through public relations people is common practice in government circles these days. Government officials claim it's a way for their bureaucracy to speak with one voice. Reporters worry that it's a way to cover up unpleasant truths by making honest people keep quiet.

In Kohlman's case, he had some troubling things to say here last Tuesday: about the 17-year-old kid who'd been assigned to him last December -- but who still hadn't been brought in nearly three months later -- and about a Department of Juvenile Services he described as undermanned, overburdened, underfunded and "going crazy."

He was asked for comments after the father of the deceased youth gave the go-ahead for him to talk.

The day Kohlman's remarks appeared here, he was called to a meeting of three Juvenile Services officials: Harry Langmead, assistant secretary for field services; Wadsworth Robinson, juvenile counselor supervisor; and Moses McAllister, regional administrator.

When he walked out of the meeting, he'd been given his suspension.

Yesterday, Harry Langmead's office said he would be unavailable for comment all day.

Wadsworth Robinson said, "I'm not going to discuss it with you. Call Moses McAllister."

Moses McAllister also refused to talk.

"Who told you we suspended Kohlman?" he asked.

"Kohlman did," he was told. "Why was he suspended?"

"We have a procedure to deal with you," McAllister said. "Talk to our media person."

"But you were there when Kohlman was suspended."

"I'm not talking about it."

"Is there anything Kohlman said that was untrue?"

"I'm not talking about it."

This leaves it to Diane Hutchins, the department's public relations person, who said Kohlman's suspension was based on "failure to follow policy regarding contacts with media."

"In other words," she was told, "because he talked to a reporter."

"No," Hutchins insisted, "because he failed to follow policy."

"Which is: No talking to reporters."

"No," she said again. "It's because he didn't follow policy."


"Is there anything Kohlman said," Hutchins was asked now, "that wasn't true?"

"This is a fine time to ask," she replied. "Why didn't you ask me last week?"

"Because," she was told, "Kohlman was the proper source. He was working the case, and not you."

Asked again if he'd said anything that wasn't true, Hutchins replied:

"I don't know all of the specifics."

A week ago, Kohlman lamented the number of juvenile clients per caseworker, the crowded conditions at various juvenile facilities and the lack of juvenile services funding.

Asked specific questions about these issues, Hutchins did not know specific answers.

And this is precisely the point: Questioning public relations people is a waste of time when you can talk to people directly involved.

So why didn't Kohlman go through prescribed channels?

"When you asked me questions," he said the other day, while sitting out his suspension, "it simply wasn't on my mind. I was just thinking of the kid who died."

Did Kohlman appeal the suspension?

"No," he said, "but I told them it didn't make sense. We've got too many kids and not enough case managers now. When they suspended me, I told them I'd go to work without pay. They said no. They said not to go on the premises."

So the question remains: Was Kohlman suspended because he didn't go through channels, or because he spoke unpleasant truths?

"I'm not allowed to talk about that," said Kohlman. "You'll have to go through channels for that."

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