Vendors bid to run tough Hickey School State admits failure, to try "privatization."

June 18, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun files

If the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School were treated like one of its youthful charges, it probably would have been deemed incorrigible and placed in solitary confinement.

Instead, the 360-bed training school and detention facility for the state's toughest juvenile offenders now faces "privatization" -- a five-year contract worth up to $80 million, giving private vendors a chance to succeed where the state admits it has failed.

JTC Yesterday marked the bidding deadline for what officials hope will be an overhaul of the institution.

"It has to be different," is all Nancy S. Grasmick, secretary of

juvenile services, can say of the proposed change.

Grasmick said her comments are limited, in part, by legal considerations. But she makes no secret of her belief that change at Hickey depends upon the imagination and innovation of the private sector.

Two committees will review the proposals, ranking them separately on their technical and financial merits. A recommendation could be before the Board of Public Works within a month, clearing the way for a Sept. 1 transition.

Authorities hope for a system that breaks up Hickey's 360 youths into smaller, more manageable groups, while taking into account special needs, such as learning disabilities, drug and alcohol abuse.

If successful, the transition could make the Maryland institution a model for other states. It also could complete the move away from large institutions for juveniles, which began several years ago when the Montrose School was closed.

At the time, Montrose's problems were so overwhelming that Hickey seemed relatively benign. But with Montrose's closing, and the increasing use of community-based programs, Hickey became home to the state's toughest cases. In the past two years, the facility has been plagued by runaways, attacks on employees and overcrowding.

Juvenile services officials and children's advocates say that putting the management of the school into private hands offers a chance to put Hickey on a new course.

"We're not going to settle for mediocrity any more," said Grasmick, who assumed the secretary's post in January while continuing to serve as the special secretary in the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families.

Mediocrity may be too kind a description for current conditions at Hickey, according to state legislators and children's advocates. In March, when a report on the school was presented to the General Assembly, "It [the report] was so devastating, so appalling, we didn't know whether to cry or scream," said state Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-City.

The report included descriptions of youths handcuffed to beds and placed in solitary confinement for days. The General Assembly responded by rewriting the budget in order to eliminate the state jobs assigned to the school. But the lawmakers kept the money for the jobs in the budget, clearing the way for a private contractor.

The move was a radical one. Although DJS, under the tenure of then-Secretary Linda D'Amario Rossi, had slowly moved programs into the private sector, only two states, Florida and Tennessee, have privately run training schools.

But Grasmick said she wanted to do more than transfer Hickey from the state to the private sector. She wanted the school overhauled and reinvented. To do that, she decided she needed a request-for-proposal (RFP) broad enough to encourage innovation.

The inch-thick bid request, published May 3, offers few specific clues about what the department wants. Advocates initially complained it was too broad -- an open invitation to maintain the status quo.

"As far as privatizing, that gives it [Hickey] a wonderful opportunity to develop flexible, responsive programs," said Susan P. Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth, Inc. "But just privatizing by itself won't do it.

Set on rolling acreage in the Cub Hill section of northeast Baltimore County, Hickey is, as Leviton describes it, a jarring mix of "beautiful land and terrible buildings . . . you can call it whatever you want to call it, it's a jail."

Grasmick, responding to concerns expressed by Leviton and others, sent a letter reminding potential vendors that treatment programs, not just services such as food and security, could be subcontracted. The children's advocates were appeased.

"Initially, I was concerned," said Yitzhak Bakal, executive director for Northeastern Family Institute of Danvers, Mass., a potential vendor. "I thought it was largely pushing to say everything must be done within the walls."

Bakal said Grasmick's letter convinced him, however, that contractors can place more youths in community-based programs, gradually reducing the Hickey population.

Some advocates still voice concern that Hickey's physical site -- the institutional, cell-like buildings and fences topped with barbed wire -- is in itself an overwhelming limitation. Questions from contractors, Leviton said, have centered largely on buildings, as opposed to the youths who inhabit them.

DJS has money for capital improvements at Hickey, Grasmick responded, but it will not be allocated until a private contractor is chosen.

What happens if the bids come in and Grasmick's committees are faced with an array of contractors who essentially want to run Hickey as it has always been run?

"Then the department could go back to the governor and say the vision for this has not been met, and ask for an extension," Grasmick said. And the search would start over again.

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