Effort to reform Hickey School starts all over Specialists urge complete rethinking

December 06, 1992|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

It was "a historical moment," Maryland's secretary of juvenil services declared at the news conference 18 months ago. Nancy S. Grasmick announced with relief that the state was handing its most troubled facility for young offenders over to a private company.

The three-year, $50 million contract with Rebound, Inc. to run the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School offered "an opportunity to restructure the program from scratch," said Ms. Grasmick, now state secretary of education.

"We're not going to have this opportunity again," she said. "We're going to do Hickey right."

Today, the opportunity that would never come again is already back. Rebound is retreating in disgrace after running Hickey for 14 months. And as Maryland rushes to find another company to take over the old training school, the state may be setting itself up for failure again, according to national specialists in juvenile corrections.

At stake are public safety and the fate of many youths, because Hickey is the state's last effort to change the behavior of its toughest teen-agers before they graduate to prison. Unless Hickey's problems are addressed, the state's juvenile justice system can have little hope of reducing crime, a growing proportion of which is committed by adolescents.

"The state should not preserve Hickey in its present format," said John L. Morgenthau, whose Florida consulting firm assisted Rebound during its takeover of Hickey last year.

"Generally speaking, large, remote institutions of the size of Hickey are not responsive to the needs of kids," Mr. Morgenthau said. His views were similar to those of the half-dozen specialists interviewed for this article.

"Whatever decisions are made about the Hickey School should be made at the public policy level in the state," not by a handful of Juvenile Services planners, Mr. Morgenthau said. Judges, police, prosecutors and public defenders should all help decide Hickey's future and share responsibility for its future, he said.

Dissatisfied with Rebound's performance, state officials announced two weeks ago that they will terminate its contract in January and try to find a new contractor by April. Denver-based Rebound, frustrated with its inability to turn the aging institution around, gave up without a fight. The Department of Juvenile Services, now headed by Mary Ann Saar, is pledging again to "do Hickey right."

But the specialists interviewed last week raised several major concerns -- including some of the same issues that Rebound officials say plagued their 14-month operation of Hickey:

* Size: In a letter sent Thursday to potential bidders on a new Hickey contract, the Department of Juvenile Services suggested that it would cut Hickey's population from about 360 to 288. But that would still be nearly double the 150 maximum recommended for a juvenile facility by the American Correctional Association.

Paul De Muro, a consultant and former commissioner of children and youth in Pennsylvania, said that in juvenile corrections, "smaller is always better than larger. If the director can know every staff member by name and every kid by name, family situation and history, then the place can function well." He said the ideal size for a facility is 50 to 60 beds.

Mr. De Muro was the author of a damning report on Hickey last year that increased pressure on the state to give up its own management of the school. Of approximately 150 training schools he has visited in the last two decades, Hickey was "one of the very worst," he said.

* Population mix: Traditionally, children who fit nowhere else -- chronic truants and murderers, some mentally retarded, others emotionally disturbed -- end up at Hickey. Some stay a few

weeks, others more than a year.

The variety of kids makes it difficult to design a coherent treatment program. "One of the things that has to be done is to define the population," said Orlando Martinez, a former Colorado juvenile corrections chief who examined Hickey for Rebound a few weeks ago. "You can't just dump kids in there."

* Follow-up care: Youths returning home from Hickey are assigned to Juvenile Services counselors who have as many as 50 kids to supervise. A study last year by David M. Altschuler of Johns Hopkins University found that the DJS workers see their charges infrequently and very rarely visit their homes.

The temptations of the street -- drugs to sell, cars to steal, fights to join in -- can doom even the best treatment program unless kids are closely supervised when they leave, the specialists say.

* Cost: Hickey's $17 million annual cost takes the biggest single bite out of the state's $90 million juvenile services budget. Its $50,000-per-slot annual cost dwarfs the price tag of every other program for young offenders in the state.

As the Department of Juvenile Services has absorbed two years of budget cuts, cheaper community-based programs have suffered most, while Hickey remained intact.

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