Hickey School fires staffer

$7-an-hour dishwasher assigned to guard duty is scapegoat, some say

Worker shortage alleged

Youth advocates say YSI trying to divert attention from security

July 13, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Under pressure for a series of security breaches -- including the rape of a staff member -- the company operating two Maryland juvenile jails has responded by firing a $7-an-hour dishwasher who was assigned guard duty because of a staff shortage.

The dishwasher, Dwane Williams, 38, and others say he was fired to divert attention to staff shortages that have forced numerous employees at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School to work double shifts and have left some shifts uncovered.

Williams said that he had not been disciplined since he began work there almost a year ago and that his supervisor told him as she fired him that he had been an "outstanding" employee.

The firing has raised the ire of advocates for juveniles, who called it a desperate move to cover serious security lapses at Hickey and the Victor Cullen Academy, two facilities that are supposed to be among the state's most secure.

"I don't know how anybody could mistake it for anything but scapegoating," said James P. McComb, chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, a statewide advocacy group. "The concern here is that this guy was not hired to watch kids. He was hired to wash dishes."

Officials from the Department of Juvenile Justice said they had no comment on the firing or measures being taken by the private contractor hired to run the detention facilities, Youth Services International Inc. YSI officials did not return several phone calls yesterday.

The firing occurred as a state legislative hearing was scheduled for this morningby lawmakers concerned about the rape at Hickey and the escapes of five juveniles from the two facilities.

The incidents occurred within a week of one another, beginning June 25, and the state Department of Juvenile Justice and YSI have been pointing fingers at each other ever since.

Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the juvenile justice system, said she will have some pointed questions for juvenile justice officials when they face her panel this morning.

"I want to know where they fell down, where they've picked up the ball to correct the problems and what they're doing to make sure our juvenile justice system is run correctly," Ruben said yesterday. "Obviously, something's wrong, and it needs to be corrected."

YSI has a five-year, $78 million contract to operate Hickey in Baltimore County and Victor Cullen in Frederick County.

Company officials have said the escapes were caused in part by outdated facilities, which are the responsibility of the state. Juvenile justice officials maintain that human error by the schools' staff factored into both escapes -- of three youths from Victor Cullen on June 27 and two youths from Hickey on July 1.

Juvenile justice officials said they do not know how many staff members were on duty at the time of the rape or escapes, or how severely the facilities have been understaffed. "I can say that we have noticed some occasional under-staffing," said the department's spokesman, Bob Kannerberg. "We're looking at it."

The department has been auditing the ratio of staff members to delinquents since April, when YSI's contract began, he said, and it should have data next month.

While the squabbling continues, Williams is out of a job.

Officials at Hickey allowed him to finish his shift at 7: 30 p.m. Friday, when he was summoned and fired. His dismissal papers say, "On June 25th, Mr. Williams failed to adequately supervise youth which resulted in the sexual assault of a staff."

In an interview with The Sun yesterday, Williams, who has worked at Hickey since August, said he was assigned to the west dining hall in a less-secure part of the training school. On the evening of the rape, he said, he was asked to work on the east campus, "behind the fence," as it is known, the most secure section of Hickey.

"They're just short-staffed, period," he said. "People are working double shifts trying to fill in, but I guess they couldn't find anyone that day."

His job was to watch seven delinquents as they set up a food-serving line, served dinner to other inmates and cleaned up when the building emptied. At the same time, Williams said, he was responsible for helping to clean the dining hall and return goods to a storage room.

Usually, he said, another staff member was present to take care of those duties while he washed dishes. "Those kids," he said, "can be gone in the blink of an eye."

YSI officials have conducted an investigation to determine how one of the juveniles, a 16-year-old from Baltimore, managed to slip away from the dining hall, get into an unlocked clinic where drugs were dispensed and rape the woman, the only employee in the building.

The company turned its findings over to the juvenile justice department yesterday, but state officials refused to make them public until today's hearing.

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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