Growing pains in juvenile jail

Documentary: A new film by the lieutenant governor's youngest sister examines the hardships of Maryland's justice system for the young.

March 18, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The youngest sister of Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has produced a documentary film that looks at the lives of teen-agers in the state juvenile justice system her older sibling oversees.

Rory Kennedy, an independent filmmaker in New York, received extraordinary access to the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County, where she and director Liz Garbus filmed "Juvies." The two-hour film is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Thursday on the A&E cable network.

The documentary, filmed from December 1998 to November 1999, follows three young men through the system. Their stories intersect at Cheltenham, a chronically overcrowded juvenile jail that advocates and administrators have said should be demolished.

Adam Gelb, Townsend's policy director, said yesterday that he wrote a letter to various agencies on Kennedy's behalf after she requested access. He said neither he nor Townsend had any involvement in its content and had not seen the film.

Maryland's troubled juvenile justice agency has been under close scrutiny since December, when The Sun published a series describing abuses by guards at three juvenile boot camps in Western Maryland. The stories also detailed an after-care system that left youths virtually unsupervised once they left.

The Kennedy documentary doesn't address those issues. Maryland officials are not seen or discussed in the film. Instead, the filmmakers focused on the teen-agers and their relationships with family members and caseworkers who try to put them on the right path.

Daniel, an overweight 14-year-old, is the film's most compelling figure. Emotionally disturbed, he is confined to Cheltenham twice -- once for shoving his mother, then for violating probation.

He calls his probation officer and begs to be transferred to a hospital. He hasn't gotten his medication in several days. He's being threatened sexually. The probation officer is unsympathetic, telling Daniel he won't do anything unless a formal report is filed.

"I'm scared here," says Daniel.

"As well you should be, Daniel," replies the officer. "That's what it's for."

Daniel is finally sent to a group home. As he shops with his mother for clothes, he pulls off his shirt to reveal large bruises on each arm -- inflicted, he says, by other Cheltenham youths.

Marc A. Schindler, an attorney with the Youth Law Center in Washington who has investigated conditions at Cheltenham, lauded the film's depiction of the teen-agers' plights. But Schindler said he was disappointed by the portrayal of Cheltenham.

"The biggest thing it didn't touch on was that it's a very overcrowded facility," he said. "The fact that they can have 100 kids in units for 45 didn't come through at all."

Garbus, who was nominated for an Oscar for a previous film about prisons, said she didn't witness those problems at Cheltenham and that she was more interested in focusing on the young men.

"When we were there filming, we never saw anything like that," Garbus said. "There was no censorship about the material."

Kennedy and Garbus are working on a second film about juvenile justice in Maryland, this time examining a secure unit for girls at the Thomas J. S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel.

Pub Date: 3/18/00

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