Kids in trouble are still waiting

September 01, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin Sun Staff Writer Michael James contributed to this article.

FOR ALL THE controversy that preceded it, the recent move of the Baltimore City Civil Service Commission from the east side of the city's Courthouse East to a building down the street was as quiet as they come.

For years, juvenile judges and advocates had been waiting to get their hands on this space. They had state money to create a central intake system that would intervene immediately when kids got into trouble. The only problem, they said, was the city, which couldn't seem to move on the deal.

You'd think that now the judges and advocates would be cheering. But now that Civil Service is finally gone, so is the money to do what was planned. Court medical offices will occupy the space instead.

To Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, who presided over the city's juvenile court for more than a decade before transferring out last September, it's just one more example of the way the city of Baltimore refuses to take responsibility for children arrested daily in its own streets.

The judge's frustrations have been well known in some circles, but rarely has he made them public. Recently, however, he made his criticisms plain in a letter to E. Clinton Bamberger Jr., founder of the clinical law program at the University of Maryland Law School.

He implied that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration was largely to blame for the fact that a new juvenile justice center planned in East Baltimore, which will have 144 detention beds, brand-new courtrooms, offices and other facilities, won't be ready until almost 2000.

Mitchell was responding to an account Bamberger wrote of a day he spent in juvenile court with a teen-age friend who was trying to be placed in foster care. Bamberger described the conditions of the court, in the bowels of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, as "Dickensian," comparable to the deplorable legal conditions he had seen for children in Katmandu and Johannesburg.

In reply, Mitchell wrote that now Bamberger might understand his frustration with the process of building the [See Juvenile, 5f] new center. He wrote that state officials, legislators and community members had joined "in a passionate advocacy for the development of such a facility. The City of Baltimore only provided token support as we searched throughout the City for a suitable location for the structure.

"Finally, after three wasted years of site selection, in which neither the Mayor or his administration assisted the search in any meaningful way, the decision was reached to locate the facility and actually begin the arduous task of government-funded construction."

Schmoke recently flatly dismissed the judge's comments as "misleading" and said he and other city officials played a meaningful role in helping to locate the site.

"This expresses [Mitchell's] frustration in not having the facility sited as quickly as he wanted," Schmoke said. "But understand, where he wanted to put it was in some of the nicer communities in Baltimore City, and people didn't want it. We had made it clear that we would not impose this facility on a neighborhood that didn't want it."

Asked to comment on Mitchell's statements about Schmoke, Stuart O. Simms, secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, called the issue "past history" and said he was very pleased about the administration's support for the project. The long fight to build the center is relevant to child advocates, who for some time have been pressuring the state to fix conditions at Cheltenham, formerly known as Boys' Village.

After visiting Cheltenham last fall, consultants for Baltimore's Annie E. Casey Foundation wrote that the facility was operating far below standards. Advocates say the facility, which is 90 minutes from the city, still has many problems.

"There are health and safety violations. There's overcrowding. There's not adequate programming to serve many of the kids with special needs," said Lisa Pedersen, legal director of the Public Justice Center, which is considering suing the state to change the system. Back in 1992, when state officials first approached the city about helping to find a site for the new center, they pointed out that Baltimore was the only one of the state's five largest jurisdictions not to have some kind of facility for juvenile offenders. And there would be no cost for new courtrooms that normally would have come from city coffers.

"Listen, folks, you don't have to spend a nickel," Mitchell remembers telling city officials at the time. "Help us locate a site."

The first response from the city, Mitchell said, was to try to put the facility in another county.

"I said Carroll County, Towson, Ruxton, anywhere but Baltimore City," said city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who was involved in the discussions. "We need more than institutional uses for sites. I need things to pay taxes in Baltimore City."

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