Supervision of juveniles excoriated in report

Replace Cheltenham, Robinson urges

March 01, 2000|By Todd Richissin and Michael Dresser | Todd Richissin and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice is so dysfunctional that probation officers have been ordered not to punish delinquents who use drugs, skip rehabilitation meetings or otherwise violate terms of their release, a task force reported yesterday in the fiercest and most recent condemnation of the troubled agency.

The report -- issued by a panel appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- said even the state's most dangerous delinquents have faced "superficial" oversight once they're released from juvenile jails into programs collectively known as after-care.

As the task force's report was being released, acting Juvenile Justice Secretary Bishop L. Robinson told state legislators in Annapolis that the overcrowded Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County "needs to be demolished."

Robinson said he expects the demolition to be part of a master plan on department facilities, which is to be completed by fall. His statement surprised and pleased advocates for children, who have long urged the state to raze the prison-like facility, because overcrowding has led to delinquents sleeping on floors and increased violence.

"We might save something for historical purposes," Robinson said of Cheltenham, which has been beset by problems since it opened in 1872 as the private House of Reformation for Colored Boys. "What went on there historically behind those walls, I don't want to preserve."

The task force was impaneled by Glendening and Townsend in December, after newspaper reports that delinquents routinely violated terms of their probation with no consequences from the juvenile justice agency. Most of them committed additional crimes while officials ignored their probation violations.

Daniel W. Moylan, a retired Circuit Court judge from Washington County and chairman of the task force, said he hoped recent attention focused on the juvenile justice system will force top state officials to overhaul the system.

"Because of the crisis, the problem is out in the open," he said yesterday. "I don't think it can be swept under the rug. People are going to have to pay attention to this. The task force made recommendations that -- if carried out -- there's a chance to change a system that has for a couple of decades needed to be revamped or overhauled."

Moylan said probation officers failed to punish delinquents who tested positive for drugs or missed required meetings because of a culture that trickled down from the juvenile justice agency's top officials.

"My feeling is it came from headquarters," he said. "I think it's a money thing."

Townsend, the governor's point person on crime issues, was busy yesterday and could not be interviewed about the report, according to a spokesman. She and the governor issued a joint statement that said the report validated their "balanced and restorative justice" approach to crime, which calls for punishment combined with treatment.

While not quibbling with that philosophy, the report took exception to its execution, saying, " this model has not permeated the agency's policies or practices."

The judge and his task force were hard-pressed to cite anything the Department of Juvenile Justice has been doing right.

Instead, their report listed problem after problem not only with the after-care system but with the department as a whole. Among those cited in the report:

The agency's operations generally "lack a clear, strategic approach to holding youth accountable, providing services targeted to needs and risk factors, and assisting them in becoming productive adults."

Delinquents are shuffled to various punishments and programs with no consistent criteria for their placements. A juvenile who needs mental health treatment after being released from confinement, for example, is likely to be dealt to the first program that has an open slot -- regardless of whether it includes a mental health component.

The juvenile justice agency is not alone to blame. Moylan said a systemic breakdown between state agencies needs to be repaired so that mental health and educational needs become part of an overall approach to after-care.

Robinson, the acting secretary who took over the department after Glendening purged his predecessor and four other top managers last year, told a House judiciary committee hearing on proposed juvenile justice legislation yesterday that Cheltenham needs to be razed, because it is "not appropriately designed to house and operate contemporary programs and services."

Robinson, who acknowledged that a new facility would need to be constructed, said he had not discussed his recommendation with the governor. Del. Sharon M. Grosfeld, who toured Cheltenham in October, said Robinson's statement was welcome news to critics of the facility. "It is unfit for human beings," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

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