Report makes juvenile justice system shudder

MICHAEL OLESKER

May 16, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Beautiful. The cops keep telling us we're losing control of our kids, and now a grand jury tells us we're losing the kids even when they're allegedly under control.

The cops keep arresting these children who've moved directly from Mother Goose to Lady Cocaine. The playgrounds are now finishing schools for tomorrow's parasites. For this, the community keeps places like the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, where the most troubling kids are taken for incarceration and, you should pardon the expression, correction.

The latest city grand jury declares: Don't make us laugh.

In a week where the cops keep arresting children for narcotics trafficking, a 63-page grand jury report, completed two days ago, sends a shudder through a jittery juvenile justice system.

It says the kids who come out of Hickey are no better than when they went in -- and, in many cases, are even more hardened.

A few facts from the report:

* About three-quarters of those released from Hickey wind up being rearrested and returned to the juvenile facility or to an adult prison.

* The average cost per child per year at Hickey is now $60,000 -- a $21-million-a-year tab for the state of Maryland.

But those are just numbers. The grand jury report, written after a four-month investigation of the juvenile justice system, damns Hickey for insensitivity, for wastefulness, for mixing non-violent children with hardened toughs and for inappropriate treatment of kids who still have a chance to straighten out their lives if only the system can come to its senses.

Example: "Harassment of the residents by staff," the report says, "can be overt or subtle. Hitting, rough handling, and verbal intimidation were all reported. . . . When the assaulted youth retaliates, he is sent to isolation. Even then, 'body slamming' is done by the security team as they put someone 'on ice.' "

Example: Three teen-age girls were handcuffed to their beds as punishment for fighting. Unable to leave their locked rooms, they had to urinate in plastic cups.

Example: "When an otherwise animated and outgoing youth became withdrawn," the report says, "[he] confided that a staff member told him, 'There was a phone call for you. Somebody in your family died.' " He had to wait until a weekend pass allowed him to go home, where he learned his brother was dead and had been buried.

Example: Only about $200 per child per year is spent on "prevention and diversion." In other words, on trying to correct the kids' behavior in some way other than strict punishment.

And so the juvenile justice system becomes one of revolving doors. The kids on the street are out of control, and the system takes them in with official intentions of straightening them out.

But it isn't working that way. Paul Donnelly is the fifth Hickey superintendent in the last three years. The allotted staff is about 400, but there are more than 70 vacancies. Staffers work an average of 56 hours a weeks. Most are middle-aged females. In a facility that's largely male, there's a strong lack of role models.

Much of this isn't exactly shocking news. In his State of the State address last January, Gov. William Donald Schaefer said:

"But I also visited the Hickey School recently, and I did not like what I saw. I saw a sense of hopelessness by people in high authority. I saw buildings run down, that hadn't been repaired or changed in years. I saw kids that weren't getting the challenge they need.

"I saw something that I don't like, and that's an 'I don't care' attitude.And I saw a lack of cooperative spirit among the staff itself."

The words take on a new urgency now. The drug dealers, who are nothing if not street-wise, are turning routinely to children to hide their stash. They figure the cops won't check. When caught, the kids talk of being pressured into carrying the stuff.

"Oh, sure," a cop on Bank Street, in East Baltimore, was saying yesterday. His voice dripped with sarcasm. "Are you buying this intimidation stuff? By the time these kids are 8 years old, they've seen how the business works. They've seen their uncles and their sisters involved in it.

"I've had kids tell me, 'I don't have to tell you nothing.' Now, where did that come from? Did their minister tell them that? It's not intimidation, it's just a quick way to money."

We walk a delicate line here, accusing children of criminal sophistication beyond their years. Where did our belief in their innocence go?

We compound the problem ourselves. We arrest these kids, and we put them in the places like the Hickey School, where nothing happens to straighten out their lives. The grand jury report makes a few suggestions: "develop a personalized awareness of the consequences of their actions through programs to rehab victims' homes," for example.

It's better than handcuffing kids to their beds. And it's better than watching most of them come out of Hickey and get right back into the stuff that sent them there.

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