The Wrong Questions

MARK K. SHRIVER

May 14, 1991|By MARK K. SHRIVER

The state-run Charles Hickey Training School in Baltimore County, a secure institution for juvenile delinquents, will soon be turned over to a private contractor. The State Department of Juvenile Services has determined it is not capable of operating this facility effectively itself. The private sector is being hailed as the solution.

Is it? Is privatization the cure to Hickey's ills?

That is the wrong question. It is not whether the public or private sector is better suited to run Hickey as it is presently configured. No, the questions are more fundamental: What do we want from a place like Hickey and can it be achieved? What do we want from the juvenile justice system itself?

Unfortunately, we have focused our energies on who gets to run what, rather than on what juveniles need. The problem with Hickey is not simple and it is not that the state is running it. The problem is that we have failed to implement an array of services for troubled youths to ensure proper treatment for specific problems, and, ultimately, to ensure that the right kids end up in secure residential treatment.

The error in the juvenile justice system -- and indeed the crux of the failure of Hickey or any such institution -- has been in neglecting the fact that each youth has unique behaviors and needs. Surely, all youths at Hickey do not have the same problems, yet all are treated the same. Is the best treatment to lump children in a 300-bed, 100-year-old facility? Can this method of treatment ever be effective?

Some youths do need residential treatment because their problems and circumstances are so severe that less restrictive and intensive care would be inappropriate. But do we adequately identify these youths among the vast majority who do not need residential care? Do we assess those headed to residential care, and once there, do we attempt to meet the identified needs?

The answer, with few exceptions, has been no.

For those youths who need security, we need to explore alternatives such as 15-bed programs with individualized programming. We must also develop a continuum of services to meet the needs of the other youths who enter the system. Some may need intensive supervision -- visits five times a day, seven days a week; others may need equally consistent but less frequent, visits. Still others may need only to become involved in recreation leagues or in a less structured relationship, such as those provided by Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

It has been pointed out many times that we know the programs that work to help troubled youth and their families. Now we need to focus our attention on replicating and strengthening those programs.

The key to each successful program has been and will always be the attention paid to each child's particular problems. I know of no effective model for a 300-bed institution unless the goal is simply public safety. But the juvenile justice system has clung to the belief that delinquent children should have the opportunity to be rehabilitated at the same time that the public is being protected.

We need to fund services that work, not just places because they exist. The dollars should follow the services, not the services follow the dollars.

And we are wrong if, having finally designed a framework for a better, more comprehensive juvenile treatment system, we believe that only the private sector can run the show; likewise, it is wrong to believe that the public sector alone is the answer. We must in each case support the organizational structure best suited to address the particular problem.

For instance, the Choice Program in south Baltimore provides intensive supervision and advocacy to troubled youths. It is a program of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, but Choice staff are not classified state employees. We hire young college graduates for 12-month stints; this staffing means the caseworkers are less experienced, but they have the energy and dedication so desperately needed to address, around the clock, the problems of the youth and families with whom we work. Our program has kept many youths out of Hickey, because the state was willing to fund a flexible, alternative organizational structure that provides specific, individual services.

The privatization of Hickey will be hotly debated; a private contractor will eventually win the bid. The switch may provide short-term improvement, but it will only be short term as long as we continue to focus on places and how to run them and not on the real issue: how to build a system that is responsive to the individual needs of our youngsters.

Mark K. Shriver is director of the Choice program.

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