At Hickey School, young offenders make progress, but will it matter?

A ROUGH ROAD UP FROM DELINQUENCY

October 11, 1992|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

The Tuesday afternoon sex offenders' group at Charles H. Hickey Jr. School begins, as always, with confessions. One by one, the seven teen-agers list the names of their victims and describe their crimes.

It takes quite some time.

There is a 14-year-old who raped or attempted to rape six girls under the age of 8. There is a 15-year-old who molested a 3-year-old boy. There is a 16-year-old who admitted to the others the identity of the girl he assaulted only after several months of twice-a-week group therapy. He still speaks of her reluctantly.

When the 16-year-old, dressed in a green sweat suit, refers to "my victim," counselor Michael Myers stops him.

"He said 'my victim,' " Mr. Myers says. "Who's his victim, anybody know?"

"His sister," another boy says quietly. "Yeah, she's your sister, say she's your sister," a third one adds. The 16-year-old leans forward in his chair, staring at his hands, and says nothing.

Like most of the 326 teen-age boys at Maryland's end-of-the-line institution for juvenile offenders, these seven arrived here accustomed to communicating largely with threats and insults, fists and handguns.

It is a considerable achievement that they can sit for 90 minutes and civilly discuss their crimes and their feelings, throwing around phrases such as "easily angered" and "low self-esteem" and taking turns at the blackboard to sketch the "victim's cycle."

But have they really changed? Do they regret their crimes? Have the wounds left by the abuse most of them suffered as children begun to heal? After the six or nine months they will spend at Hickey, will they walk out of here strong enough and stable enough to resist the myriad temptations of the street?

Or, as the taxpayers who are footing the staggering bill for this institution might ask: Are they still dangerous?

It is an agonizingly difficult question. Behind it stands another, parallel question: Has the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, with its own troubled past of violence and neglect, really changed?

Thirteen months ago, after five new superintendents in two years had failed to end the horror stories emanating from Hickey's pastoral campus in Cub Hill, the Department of Juvenile Services in effect threw up its hands.

It turned the place over to a Colorado company, Rebound Inc., under a three-year, $50 million contract that is one of Maryland's boldest and most closely watched experiments with privatization.

Along with the aging stucco buildings, Rebound inherited a burdensome legacy, an institution conceived in idealism but operated inconsistently and sometimes brutally.

In a rocky first year, most outside observers say, the company has largely eliminated the atmosphere of indifference and abuse that made Hickey notorious. But they say it has made only modest headway against the passive, warehousing approach to its charges.

"I think they're much more professional. They treat kids better," says Susan Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth, which monitors Hickey.

"But they haven't got the programs really going -- vocational programs, drug rehabilitation, independent living skills."

Mary Ann Saar, who heads the Department of Juvenile Services, says Rebound "has a ways to go in bringing the program up to my expectations." There have been shortcomings in in special education, security and other areas, and the staff is still of inconsistent quality, she says.

That is a point not lost on some of the young offenders, such as Jason Bell, 18, a Charles County youth with a long arrest record who recently completed a six-month stay. "Some staff go against everything the other staff tells us. Some will tell you not to curse, and others will curse right along with you."

Jason did not see the laxity as compassion. "The ones that let you do what you want just don't care," he says.

"Edsels of corrections"

Some national experts in juvenile justice say it was a mistake to keep Hickey open at all. They say Maryland should have followed the lead of states such as Massachusetts, which have replaced big, old training schools with a combination of intense supervision in the community for most offenders and much smaller, secure treatment units close to home for the most violent and chronic delinquents.

"These large training schools are the Edsels of youth corrections," says Ira M. Schwartz, director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at the University of Michigan. "They are a thing of the past, but one we still cling to, hoping for miracles."

Tim Neidermeyer, a 41-year-old veteran of the Ohio juvenile justice system recruited by Rebound in January to oversee the Hickey project, comes surprisingly close to agreeing.

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