State legislators called top juvenile justice officials everything but competent yesterday in a pointed hearing that showed a series of fundamental mistakes led to a rape and the escape of five delinquents from Maryland's highest-security juvenile jails.
Roberto de Jesus, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, sat on the hot seat next to a top official from the company hired to run the jails. Both promised improvement while agreeing that a shortage of staff, blunders by workers and lax supervision contributed to the incidents at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School and the Victor Cullen Academy.
Sen. Ida G. Ruben, who called the hearing as chair of the subcommittee that oversees the juvenile justice department, said the mistakes were not understandable shortcomings but egregious failings.
"If this wasn't so serious, I would think I was watching a Keystone Kops movie because of the mistakes that were made," said the Montgomery Democrat. "Everybody is going in different directions, and nobody is paying attention to the rules. There are so many things you could point to and say, `My God. It's like we've had our head in the sand.' "
De Jesus and representatives of Youth Services International Inc., the for-profit company that runs the Hickey School in Baltimore County and the Victor Cullen Academy in Frederick, were summoned before the oversight committee after a series of security breaches.
On June 25, a 16-year-old Baltimore inmate with a history of violence is accused of walking out of his assignment cleaning a dining hall and raping a staffer who was left alone in an unlocked building where drugs were dispensed. Within a week, three delinquents escaped from Victor Cullen and two others escaped Hickey.
Two of the five escapees have not been recaptured.
Among other measures, YSI has agreed to pay $11,000 every time a delinquent escapes. If more than one escapes at one time, the company will pay $11,000 plus $2,000 for every youth beyond the first one.
Jim Irving, president of YSI, said the rape at Hickey occurred when a dishwasher who was placed in charge of seven delinquents failed to watch them closely, allowing one to sneak away. Irving said the dishwasher was left alone with the juveniles because of a staff shortage and that the company was trying hard to attract more workers.
The $7-an-hour dishwasher was fired last week.
"I just find that to be amazing, and I think he's being used as a scapegoat," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat. "It just doesn't add up."
Ruben said she wanted a writ- ten report on the firing. "I want to know why a person like that lost his job if in fact he was carrying a greater burden than he should have," she said.
Irving said that even Hickey's dishwashers are taught security measures and that those measures were not followed. (He said after the hearing that dishwashers would no longer be expected to guard delinquents while performing other duties.)
De Jesus acknowledged that his department knew before the incidents that the facilities were understaffed, but he said he did not believe the shortage placed either the delinquents or staff at risk. "If we had thought so," he said, "we would have moved in."
Del. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Democrat whose district includes Cub Hill, where Hickey is located, defended YSI but said the security concerns need to be addressed by the company and the state. He said improvements since YSI took over in 1993 have been dramatic.
"We used to have a facility where children raped each other," he said. "We used to have a facility where kids hung themselves."
But moments after he spoke, Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, took aim at the secretary, the department and YSI.
`Passing the buck'
"I've sat here all morning, and I've heard there were problems up and down the line," Currie said. "I've heard your explanations. I conclude that you guys pass the buck. I'm listening here for something to take back to the people in my district, and I've heard nothing. You spent all morning here justifying, passing the buck."
According to the results of an investigation by the inspector general for the juvenile justice department and to YSI's separate report, the escapes from Hickey and Cullen were aided by mistakes that began before the juveniles fled and that continued when they were outside the facilities.
In the Hickey escape, one juvenile was banging on his door to hide the noise of another youth punching a screen out of his room, but nobody investigated.
Nor did the staff pay heed to an alarm that went off at 11: 30 p.m. They checked a gate but failed to check on the delinquents in their charge. It was not until 45 minutes after the alarm sounded that they discovered them missing, and it was two hours after the alarm that police were notified.
Later, when a relative of one of the escapees reported to Hickey that he had come to her home, Hickey officials did not notify the Maryland State Police.
Irving said the supervisor who was supposed to check on the juveniles has also been fired. He added that policies for responding to alarms are being strengthened and that managers from YSI facilities elsewhere in the country are being brought in to help with additional training.
Ruben said she appreciated the efforts but thought the failings were so blatant that they could have been caught earlier. "The hindsight's great," she said, "but I would suggest you don't wait at a juvenile facility or any correctional facility for something to happen before you answer the call."
Pub Date: 7/14/99