Hickey operator is ousted Move follows free-for-all at juvenile school

November 20, 1992|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

Maryland last night terminated its contract with Denver-based Rebound! Corp., the private vendor it hired just a year ago to run the troubled Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for delinquent boys north of Loch Raven Reservoir in Baltimore County.

The action, in a terse announcement from the Department of Juvenile Services, came less than 24 hours after a free-for-all at the school sent four employees and six youths to the hospital. Four other youths escaped. It was the third major disturbance at the school since the summer.

But departmental sources said dissatisfaction with Rebound!'s efforts to manage the school for teen-age offenders had been building for months, and Gov. William Donald Schaefer was publicly critical of the firm at a news conference yesterday.

A joint statement yesterday evening by Mary Ann Saar, secretary of Juvenile Services, and Jane O'Shaughnessy, chief executive officer of Rebound! in Denver, said the company will continue to run the school for 60 days. The Department of Juvenile Services will run it after that until the state selects a new private company to manage the facility.

Deputy Secretary Joseph Newman will be in charge of the school. Sources said most of the current staff will be retained, but Rebound!'s top managers will be replaced.

Officials at both Rebound! and the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) insisted that the termination of the $50 million contract did not result from the three escapes, or the overall increase in runaways -- to more than 100 -- in the 14 months since Rebound! took over. The school currently houses 352 youths.

Bruce Bishop, the Hickey School director, said the termination "is something that has been negotiated and arranged from our perspective and DJS'. We're going to do everything within our power to assure a smooth transition." But he said, "the recent chain of events, from our perspective, has little or nothing to do with escapes. You have to understand that there obviously were some real disagreements."

The exact financial arrangements of the split have not yet been determined, according to Juvenile Services spokeswoman Jacqueline Lampell. But she said the state will not lose money because the termination is by mutual agreement.

The department decided to hire a private manager to run its most troublesome juvenile facility after two 1991 legislative reports sharply criticized the school and recommended that it be closed. Rebound!, which operates a facility for troubled youth in its home city of Denver, was chosen after competitive bidding.

While Rebound! won praise for making Hickey a more humane place, legislative auditors and other officials criticized the firm for its slow progress in setting up vocational-training and drug-rehabilitation programs. Neighbors and police were critical of security after the September escapes -- in one of the incidents, Hickey officials waited an hour after 11 youths escaped before notifying police.

Rebound! spokesmen, for their part, cited specific problems they had in trying to implement their program. The most serious, they said, was the short length of time that most boys are assigned to Hickey -- just three or four months, for a program which, they argued, should run for six to 18 months.

Last night's decision brought an I-told-you-so from Michael P. McCusker, a spokesman for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, which was highly critical of the privatization.

"When the school was being run by the state, the state was blaming the public employees for the problems," he said. "I think the problems going on now are proof that's not the case."

He said Rebound! had hired some former state workers but paid them less, forcing many to leave while it hired young and inexperienced staff.

In some cases, he said, one supervisor is responsible for two cottages, rather than a single unit as in the past, because of this turnover and because "they want to save money to make money."

The union fears that the state will contract similar facilities to private, for-profit vendors, he said.

Some sources said the deciding factor in the decision was Governor Schaefer, who was annoyed by the negative publicity about the frequent escapes.

"It has not worked out well. It's been a problem. Secretary Saar has not been satisfied with what has happened," the governor had said at a news conference. "I think you'll see something new in the near future."

Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the department, was critical of Rebound! yesterday.

"We have continuing concerns over the quality of private-sector management there. Discipline is not what the legislature had anticipated. The vendors might be in over their heads."

Rebound! officials, here and in Denver, refused to respond to specific criticisms, focusing instead on the smooth transition at the school and their amicable parting.

Ms. Saar was in meetings and could not be reached for comment, but a Juvenile Services spokeswoman, Jacquiline Lampell, said the governor had "accurately conveyed" the secretary's displeasure with the operation of the school.

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