Youth offenders sent away, only to return State lacks facilities to treat juveniles who commit sex crimes

September 29, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth and Craig Timberg | Dana Hedgpeth and Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

PORTSMOUTH, Va. -- Here in this rusty port town, a young Marylander -- an admitted child molester -- is getting ready to come home.

This 15-year-old from the Eastern Shore molested his three young brothers, crimes for which Maryland officials sent him here to the Pines Residential Treatment Center. After 16 months and $144,000 of taxpayer-financed care, he says: "It's been long enough."

Fearful residents of Towson and Ellicott City didn't want youths like this in their neighborhoods, killing a proposal this summer to build treatment facilities at Sheppard Pratt and Taylor Manor hospitals. Neighbors also are fighting a proposed facility in West Baltimore.

But the clamor from that conflict drowns out an important fact.

All these youths eventually return home, and if -- as experts say -- their treatment is hampered by being hundreds of miles from their homes and families, they could eventually pose a far greater threat to society as adult pedophiles and rapists.

"Nobody wants these kids," says Jonathan Sova, an administrator with a Maryland company that wants to create a treatment center for them in West Baltimore. "Everybody wants them sent away. But what everybody forgets is that they're coming back."

Maryland officials say facilities like the Pines are the last, best hope for rehabilitating youths labeled "violent juvenile sex offenders."

Yet Maryland officials acknowledge that they don't know exactly what the $3.7 million they spend every year on such programs buys. They have never studied recidivism or other measures of effectiveness -- and they say they have no way to do so as long as the youths are scattered in various programs across several states.

More importantly, far-off programs such as the Pines make it hard for Maryland families, many themselves profoundly troubled, to participate in treatment -- a key failing, according to experts.

"I think it is a major deficit in the way we treat these children," said Walter G. R. Wirsching, assistant director of the Department of Juvenile Justice. "We can't engage these families."

For now, the state pays to treat 51 young sex offenders at privately run facilities.

Twelve are in Portsmouth and 10 others are at similar out-of-state facilities in Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts and West Virginia. Twenty-four youths with similar problems are in an existing program at the Charles H. Hickey School in Baltimore County; five more are in detention, awaiting placement.

State juvenile officials, citing the broad cloak of confidentiality laws, have released little other information about these youths, whom Baltimore's head juvenile Judge Martin P. Welch Sr. calls "the worst of the worst."

The Sun requested information on each of these 51 youths, specifically when, where and how they committed their crimes -- and against whom. Officials refused each request, releasing instead a general profile: The average age of the youths is 14, though they range from 11 to 17. Older teens who commit serious sex crimes are routinely tried as adults.

Twenty-nine are from Baltimore City or Baltimore County. Eleven are from Montgomery or Prince George's counties. Two are from Harford, one is from Anne Arundel and the rest are from elsewhere in Maryland.

Five have sexually abused children; 11 committed second-degree rape. The rest committed a variety of less-serious sex offenses, including attempted rape.

The term "violent juvenile sex offenders" helped to provoke neighborhood opposition, but fears of these facilities may be overblown.

Youth psychiatric treatment centers in other states have occasional problems -- some serious -- on their campuses. But these youths rarely harm the outside community, according to ++ police and neighbors near the facilities treating Maryland youths.

The label also is not an official category of offenders. State officials created it to signal to potential program operators the intense treatment and security measures that would be needed at new facilities.

And if the treatment doesn't work -- whether at new Maryland facilities or places like the Pines -- some of these youths could have decades of sex crimes ahead of them, according to private researchers, Pines officials and other experts.

National research shows that more than half of adult sex offenders say their deviant sexual interests began before the age of 18.

The push to find local treatment for juvenile sex offenders is part of a larger trend. In 1992, the state legislature passed a law requiring all Maryland youths receiving mental health treatment out of state to return home.

In the five years since, that population has fallen from more than 680 in 1990 to 375 last year. But creating new local facilities for sex offenders has proven difficult -- as the state's experience in Ellicott City and Towson has shown.

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